Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian cathedral in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) under the personal supervision of the Emperor Justinian. At the church’s dedication, the Byzantine ruler purportedly claimed that he had surpassed Solomon, the Old Testament king responsible for the famous Jewish temple in Jerusalem.

It is often said that Hagia Sophia unites the mysticism of the East with the ambitious scale of Roman imperial architecture, such as the Pantheon. Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, mathematicians rather than architects, designed the masterpiece, which was built between 532 and 537. The dome of the church rises 180 feet and is supported by four pendentives or triangular sections that distribute the hemisphere’s weight evenly on four piers. Forty windows at the dome’s base allow light to flow in, making it seem weightless, as if floating above the worshippers below. At first, the church was decorated with gold mosaics and decorative patterns. Subsequent emperors added many images of holy figures.

Over the years, Hagia Sophia, which means “church of the holy wisdom” in Greek, has suffered considerable damage from earthquakes. Originally the Byzantine emperor’s personal church, it was converted to a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by Ottoman Turks in 1453. Since images of the human form are prohibited by Islam, the figurative mosaics were plastered over. Four minarets (towers from which the faithful are called to worship) were added, along with Arabic calligraphy that can still be seen in the building today. In 1936, under the Turkish ruler Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the building was secularized and converted into the Ayasofia Museum, one of the chief tourist attractions of modern Istanbul.

In 1993, UNESCO placed Hagia Sophia on a list of the world’s most endangered historic sites. Since then, the building’s foundation has been reinforced and many more of the old mosaics have been uncovered.

ADDITIONAL FACTS

  1. In the mid-sixth century, Hagia Sophia was thoroughly described by Procopius in a Byzantine treatise entitled On Architecture.
  2. Porphyry columns initially taken by the Romans from an Egyptian temple in Heliopolis were brought to Constantinople and used in the construction of Hagia Sophia.
  3. The church was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
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