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Hagia Sophia -- Christian basilica and Islamic mosque -- one of the greatest architectural wonders of antiquity

Updated on January 27, 2014
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey today.
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey today. | Source
The mihrab (indicating the direction of Mecca) of the Hagia Sofia when it was an Islamic mosque.
The mihrab (indicating the direction of Mecca) of the Hagia Sofia when it was an Islamic mosque. | Source
Imperial Gate, Hagia Sophia.
Imperial Gate, Hagia Sophia. | Source

Istanbul, Turkey

One of the most modern and beautiful cities in the world is Istanbul, Turkey and the reason this city is so interesting is because it is both a western and an eastern city. It is European and it is Asian. It is Christian and it is Islamic. And bridging the gap between the western Christian and the eastern Islamic religions is the beautiful and magnificent Hagia Sophia. It was built first as an Orthodox patriarchial basilica, later it became a mosque and today it is a museum. It has had quite a history.

It is also the first mosque I had ever seen, although it has been approximately thirty years ago. I was awed by the structure both outside and inside. It was just as lovely as a mosque as it was a basilica.

The Hagia Sophia is also known by the names Aya Sofya (Turkish) and Sancta Sophia (Latin). Sophia is a Greek word that translates to wisdom, and so the name of the edifice is also called the Church of the Holy Wisdom or Church of the Divine Wisdom.

It was built in Constantinople (today Istanbul) in the 6th century (532-537) under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. It is the most important Byzantine structure and one of the world's greatest monuments. The original church on the site is said to have been built by Constantine I in 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple. This church burned down in January of 532 and Justinian I saw an opportunity to build a greater edifice and a splendid replacement in a basilica.

The Hagia Sophia became the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the religious focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Catholic church for nearly one thousand years.

The structure now standing is the original building. There was a partial collapse of the dome in an earthquake in the year 558, but the dome was restored in 562. By the mid fourteenth century the building went through a complete restoration.

During the years 1204-1261, the basilica was convernted to a Roman Catholic church under the Latin Empire. The church was dedicated to the Logos, the second person in the Holy Trinity. (Jesus Christ) Throughout the basilica are many, many beautiful mosaics, made of beautiful and colorful tiles depictiing Christ's life and family.

It was also the location of the start of the Great Schism in 1054 between the western and eastern Catholic churches. Here Cardinal Humber excommunicated Michael I Cerularius in this basilica.

In 1204, the basilica was looted by the Venetians and the Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade.

In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and under Sultan Mehmed II the building was converted into a mosque. Mehmed had the altar and sacremental vessels removed from the building and had the mosaics plastered over as icons and pictures in a mosque are against Islamic law. He had four minarets built on the four corners of the building as these towers are to call the Islamic faithful to prayer five times a day. In the interior he had a great chandelier installed, a mihrab which is a niche indicating the direction of Mecca, a minbar which is a pulpit and disks bearing Islamic calligraphy.

It was known as Aya Sofya during Mehmed's rule and was the first imperial mosque of Istanbul. The candelsticks on either side of the mihrab were brought by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent from his conquest of Hungary.

During the Ottoman rule, the Aya Sofya was a model for many of the other Ottoman mosques such as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque) also in Istanbul and quite near the Hagia Sofia.

Kemal Ataturk secularized the building in 1934 and in 1935 he made it into the museum it is today. The mosaics have been uncovered again and are the main source of knowledge about the state of mosaic art in the 8th and 9th centuries.

Interior and main dome of the Hagia Sofia.
Interior and main dome of the Hagia Sofia. | Source

The Architecture of the Hagia Sophia

The architecture of the Hagia Sophia is quite unique and amazing. For the time it was built it was an architectural masterpiece and it remains so today. It combines a longitudinal basilica and a centralized building in a wholly original manner. The huge 105 foot (32 metre) main dome is supported by pendentives (first ever used here) and two semi-domes, one on either side of the longitudinal axis. The building is almost square.

It has three aisles separated by columns with galleries above and great marble piers rising up to support the dome. The walls above the galleries and the base of the dome are filled by stain glass windows which in the glare of daylight hide the supports and give the impression that the dome is a canopy floating on air. Along the stained glass windows are inscriptions in Arabic.

The two architects of the Hagia Sophia were Greek scientists; Anthemius of Tralles was a mathematician and Isidorus Miletus was a physicist. Justinian had eight Corinthian columns disassembled from Baalbel, Lebanon and shipped to Constantinople for construction of the Hagia Sophia.

The interior is a complex structure. The nave is covered by a central dome that rests on an arcade of forty arched stain-glass windows. The western entrance side and the eastern liturgical side have arched openings extended by the half domes of identical diameter to the central dome. These are carried on in smaller semi-domed exedras. There is a hierarchy of dome-headed elements built up to create a vast oblong interior crowned by the central dome

The dome of the Hagia Sophia

The cupola is carried on four spherical triangular pendentives that implement the transition from the circular base of the dome to the rectangular base below. This was the ingenious architecture of the two architects and had never been done before anywhere in the world. This design restrained the lateral forces of the dome and allowed its weight to flow downwards. It seems as if the dome floats between the arches.

The weight of the dome remained a problem for most of the buildings existence. It was reinforced with buttresses during the Byzantine and Ottoman times. The north and south side of the dome are original because of the earthquake damage.

The dome is famous for its mystical quality of light that reflects everywhere in the interior of the nave and gives the appearance of the dome hovering over it. The unique design was the most advanced and ambitious monument of late antiquity.

I appreciate the structure and architecture of the dome, but what catches my eye and I loved the most at the Hagia Sophia were the beautiful tile mosaics. Most of them are upstairs on the second floor of the gallery. They depict the life and times of Jesus Christ. There is the beautiful mosaic above the western entrance or the emperor's entrance that you don't want to miss. Below are some of the most beautiful mosaics in the Hagia Sophia. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Hagia Sophia Mosaics

Virgin Mary and baby Jesus.  Interior of Hagia Sophia.
Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Interior of Hagia Sophia. | Source
Imperial (Emperor's) Gate mosaic over the marble doorway of Hagia Sophia.
Imperial (Emperor's) Gate mosaic over the marble doorway of Hagia Sophia. | Source
Jesus Christ mosaic, Hagia Sophia.
Jesus Christ mosaic, Hagia Sophia. | Source
St. John Chrysostom, Hagia Sophia
St. John Chrysostom, Hagia Sophia | Source
Decorative mosaics in the upper gallery, Hagia Sophia.
Decorative mosaics in the upper gallery, Hagia Sophia. | Source

Comments

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  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    9 months ago from Taos, NM

    Stpaulimann: Thank you for your kind words and interest in my hub. As I understand Constantinople and Justinian were the beginnings of the Eastern Orthodox Catholic religion. I am glad that the Slavic people gained their Christianity here. I was fortunate to visit the Hagia Sofia many years ago and it is magnificent and amazing. It is vast with architectural beauty.

  • Stpaulimann profile image

    Stpaulimann 

    10 months ago

    Thank you for the fine article on the Church of the Hagia Sophia/Holy Wisdom. It was upon attending the Divine Service in the ninth century that Russia emissaries proclaimed, "we knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven." From the city of Constantinople, home of the Hagia Sophia, Christianity was introduced to the Slavic people.

    My compliments on an informative article about the history of the Hagia Sophia and acompanying photos.

  • Stpaulimann profile image

    Stpaulimann 

    10 months ago

    Thank you for the fine article on the Hagia Sophia. The spread of Christianity to the Slavic lands was initiated when emissaries from Russia visited the Hagia Sophia and attended the Divine Service. Upon witnessing the Service they proclaimed "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth."

  • Stpaulimann profile image

    Stpaulimann 

    10 months ago

    A wonderful article on the Hagia Sophia. The article mentioned that the seat of the Eastern Catholic Church was in Constantinople. This was during the 4th century when the emperor Constantine moved the Roman Empire east. The spread of Christianity to the Slavic lands was initiated at the Hagia Sophia. Russia sent emissaries to Constantinople, and upon attending the Divine Liturgy at the Hagia Sophia, they stated "we knew not whether we were on earth or in heaven." The gospel was then spread through the Slavic lands. Thank you Suzette Walker for the informative article and related photos. One of the beauties of the Hub Pages are fine writers reporting on many subjects.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    4 years ago from Taos, NM

    Anne: I couldn't believe it when I was in Istanbul and in the Hagia Sophia. What a dream. It is so beautiful to see and to think both the Muslims and the Christians used it as a house of prayer and religion. Just beautiful!

  • Anne Harrison profile image

    Anne Harrison 

    4 years ago from Australia

    Such beautiful photos. So many amazing places to visit, I hope to get there one day. Thankyou

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    5 years ago from Taos, NM

    mollymeadows: Thank you so much for reading this and for your comments. It is a fabulous building so full of history. Thanks for your visit - most appreciated

  • mollymeadows profile image

    Mary Strain 

    5 years ago from The Shire

    I'd love to see this ancient church. The mosaics are breathtaking. I have a copy of one of them in my home altar. Very interesting hub!

  • busillis22 profile image

    busillis22 

    5 years ago

    This is one of the places I want to visit the most in the whole world. I hope I can soon!

  • vox vocis profile image

    Jasmine 

    5 years ago

    Great photos! I didn't know that Ataturk decided to reveal the old mosaics again. I watched a documentary on Hagia Sophia and learned that the building was rebuild over and over again with no clear plan and that's why it almost collapsed multiple times. It really is a wonder. Voted up!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you and thank you for your interest. I'm glad you enjoyed this - I found Hagia Sophia to be fascinating. Thanks also for the votes - much appreciated!

  • Distant Mind profile image

    Distant Mind 

    6 years ago

    Great hub! Very interesting! Voted up!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    I was amazed by this place and its beauty. I didn't quite know what to expect when I went to Istanbul almost 30 years ago. But, what a surprise I got. The mid-east treasures that are there are amazing. I am so glad I got there as it really opened my eyes to the beauty of the near east. Thaks so much for reading and for your commments - most appreciated!

  • unknown spy profile image

    Not Found 

    6 years ago from Neverland - where children never grow up.

    Amazing and interesting place isn't it? you really have chosen one of the most interesting place with such architectural beauties.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Yes, Hagia Sophia is amazing. I especially love the mosaics - I can't imagine the work that went into creating them - so large and yet so intricate. Thanks so much for stopping by to read and comment - most appreciated!

  • JSParker profile image

    JSParker 

    6 years ago from Detroit, Michigan

    Amazing place! Beautiful photos.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Alastar: I'm glad you liked this. This building, now a museum, is fascinating and so full of Christian and Islamic history. Again, you are educating me, Alastar. I didn't know about the rock from Baalbek. I will have to look into that. Thanks so much for your insightful comments!

  • Alastar Packer profile image

    Alastar Packer 

    6 years ago from North Carolina

    Super awing suzette! This is a grand look you've put together for us on the Hagia Sophia. That part on the dome is amazing, well, all of it really. I don't know if this from the same place in Lebanon that Justinian got his columns but the massive Baalbek finely cut rock is one of the great mysteries of antiquity. Up awe n most interesting.

  • isenhower33 profile image

    Bobby Isenhower 

    6 years ago from Crothersville, IN

    I'll let you know when it happens :)

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Deal! I love country music!

  • isenhower33 profile image

    Bobby Isenhower 

    6 years ago from Crothersville, IN

    Thanks :) I will and when i become a famous country music artist i'll give you front row tickets :)

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    isenhower: So nice of you to stop by to read this and thank you for your comments - most appreciated. Go on with your education at some point and you will get out of your small town. Anything is possible with the great attitude you have and your approach to life.

  • isenhower33 profile image

    Bobby Isenhower 

    6 years ago from Crothersville, IN

    It would be awesome to see it, i know when i went to New York i loved seeing all the monuments and stuff like that :) It was pretty awesome, i love anything to do with history. Living where i do it'll be hard to get out of this small town but i'll try my best.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    isenhower33: Thank you so much for reading this article. It has been a while since I have seen Hagia Sophia, but it left a lasting impression on me. The Byzantine era in Turkey is an interesting one and this building is the best from that time. I hope you get to see this for yourself one day. Best wishes in your endeavors whatever they may be!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Sorry, Mhatter: I'm getting my comments all mixed up here. (Having a senior moment - LOL) Yes, this building is like a fairy tale, but one you would enjoy and with a happy ending. Thanks so much for reading this and for your insightful comments. Always appreciated!

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    Thank you Cogerson. Montreal just might have been influenced by this building. Are you talking about the cathedral or some mosques there? I am so glad you enjoyed this. If you have the opportunity, be sure to see this magnificent edifice. It is like a fairy tale!

  • isenhower33 profile image

    Bobby Isenhower 

    6 years ago from Crothersville, IN

    I would love to see that. I love seeing stuff like that. I haven't been able to go overseas or anything but one day i hope.

  • Mhatter99 profile image

    Martin Kloess 

    6 years ago from San Francisco

    Wow! What a trip. It is like a fairy tale. Great report, thank you.

  • Cogerson profile image

    UltimateMovieRankings 

    6 years ago from Virginia

    Thanks for the tour....you have included some awesome photos....part of the photos makes me think of Montreal Canada....which makes me wonder if Montreal was influenced by the Hagia Sophia building. Great information that goes with the photos...a job well done....voted up and awesome.

  • suzettenaples profile imageAUTHOR

    Suzette Walker 

    6 years ago from Taos, NM

    You are correct. It is an amazing building. Thanks for reading and for your comment-most appreciated!

  • profile image

    Limo Les 

    6 years ago

    Amazing building.

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