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Visit Hagia Sophia

Updated on September 16, 2010
Photo by William Ray
Photo by William Ray

The Hagia Sophia is a noted structure in Istanbul (former Constantinople), Turkey, originally a Christian church, then a mosque, and now a museum. The most famous of Byzantine churches, Hagia Sophia (or Sancta Sophia) was sponsored by Emperor Justinian and designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. The building was begun in 532 and dedicated on December 27, 537. As a result of an earthquake in 558, part of the work collapsed. It was rebuilt, and tlie apex of the main dome raised about 20 feet (6 meters), by a later Isidorus, and completed in 563.

The church proper takes the form of a rectangle measuring about 260 by 240 feet (79 by 73 meters), divided longitudinally into a nave and side aisles. The nave is covered by a dome, 100 by 106 feet (30 by 32 meters) and 184 feet (56 meters) high, supported on four penden-tives; half domes to the east and west abut it and are themselves abutted by domed exedrae (niches). To the north and south, broad arches carry the main dome.

The aisles are vaulted in a variety of forms, with women's galleries above. A ring of windows at the base of the dome floodlights the interior, and there are additional windows in the walls above the aisles and elsewhere. Monolithic columns of green Molossian marble separate nave and aisles, while porphyry shafts are used in the exedrae.

The four main piers supporting the pendentives are built of stone (peperino), but the walls, arches, and vaults are in brick. These materials are, however, sheathed in colored marble so cut that the veining pattern is reversed in neighboring slabs. Richly carved capitals and molding are treated with gold leaf, contrasting with the deep blue in the incisions. The upper part of the walls and the arches and vaults are completely covered with mosaic, largely in pure design against a gold background but with some figure compositions in the vestibule and elsewhere and cherubim on the main pendentives. The ambo (reading stand), iconostasis (screen separating the sanctuary from the nave), and ciborium (canopy) are sheathed in silver, while the crucifix and altar are of gold.

So sumptuous a building could hardly have been completed without the close backing of the emperor; it is estimated to have cost $75 million. The most obvious later additions are the four minarets constructed after the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and converted the building into a mosque. The Turks also covered the figure mosaics and, in 1847-1849, added the brownish red banding of the exterior in stucco. In the 20th century the Turkish government permitted the mosaics to be uncovered, and on February 1, 1935, converted the famous building from a mosque into a museum.

A markerHagia Sophia -
Hagia Sophia, Cankurtaran Mh., 34122 Istanbul, Turkey
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