Sacred Spaces: Hagia Sophia

We’re continuing our Sacred Spaces blog series by exploring Byzantium’s crown jewel: the Hagia Sophia.

Byzantium’s Most Famous Landmark

Photo by Omer Unlu. Via Wikimedia Commons

With a name that translates to “Holy Wisdom,” the Hagia Sophia stands as a beautiful and bright testament to the Byzantine Empire.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an important landmark for those of the Orthodox Christian and Muslim faiths.

But, did you know that this glorious structure wasn’t the first to be built on this site?  “The original church on the site of the Hagia Sophia is said to have been ordered to be built by Constantine I in 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple.”  It was consecrated in 360 by Constantius II, but damaged nearly 50 years later by a fire during a riot.

Roman emperor Constans I rebuilt the structure, which was rededicated in 415, but this building was also destroyed in a fire during a riot in 532.  Other than bad timing, the thing that both structures had in common were wooden roofs, a fatal flaw that left them vulnerable to fire.

However, this second fire turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for Emperor Justinian I who envisioned a stunning replacement (that, incidentally, did not have a wooden roof).  Justinian I had architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isodorus of Miletus design and build the new church.  With their vast knowledge of mathematics and mechanics, the architects were able to able to complete the structure in a remarkably short six years.

“In an effort to create a grand basilica that represented all of the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Justinian decreed that all provinces under his rule send architectural pieces for use in its construction.”  The marble used in the interior came from eastern Turkey and Syria while the bricks used in the walls and floor came from North Africa.  The 104 columns were imported from Greece and Egypt.

Photo via

The Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 and still stands today, having withstood the test of time (and a brief restoration in the 14th century).  The finished church followed the traditional elements of an Orthodox church, which includes a large, domed roof and semi-domed altar.  The base of the dome is comprised of windows which beautifully light the artwork found inside the dome and makes it appear to float on air.  The building itself is almost square.

“The first religious services in the “new” Hagia Sophia were held on December 27, 537. At the time, Emperor Justinian is reported to have said, ‘My Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to create such a worshipping [sic] place.'” 

While the church was initially an Orthodox Christian Church, its function changed several times throughout the centuries.  When Constantinople was captured by the Ottomans in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was made into a mosque.  “During this period, minarets were built around the perimeter of the building complex, Christian mosaic icons were covered with whitewash, and exterior buttresses were added for structural support.” In 1935, the Hagia Sophia was made into a museum and many of the original mosaics and icons were restored.

Today, the Hagia Sophia is a popular site for people of faith, artists, and architectural admirers.

Tour the Hagia Sophia

Check out this wonderful video exploring Byzantium’s jewel and showcasing its unparalleled beauty! (Can’t view the video below? Click here to watch it directly on YouTube).

Main image by Aldi Wahid. Via Wikimedia Commons
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