Hagia Sophia

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Hagia Sophia (Greek 'Αγία Σοφία, "Holy Wisdom"; Latin: Sancta Sophia or Sancta Sapientia; Turkish: Ayasofya) was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I as the Christian cathedral of Constantinople for the Byzantine Empire between 532 and 537 CE. The current structure was the last of three church buildings to be successively erected on the site by the Eastern Roman Empire.


Built in 537 CE, during the reign of Justinian, it was the world's largest building and an engineering marvel of its time. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have "changed the history of architecture". The Hagia Sophia is of masonry construction. The structure has brick and mortar joints that are 1.5 times the width of the bricks. The mortar joints are composed of a combination of sand and minute ceramic pieces distributed evenly throughout the mortar joints. This combination of sand and ceramic pieces could be considered the contemporaneous equivalent of modern concrete.

The building was constructed between 532 and 537 CE on the orders of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I as the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site, the prior one having been destroyed by rioters in the Nika riots. It was designed by the Greek geometers Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles.

The site was an Eastern Orthodox church from 360 to 1204 CE, when it was converted to a Catholic church following the Fourth Crusade.


circa 537 CE

On 23 February 532 CE, only a few weeks after the destruction of the second basilica, Emperor Justinian I decided to build a third and entirely different basilica, larger and more majestic than its predecessors. Justinian chose geometer and engineer Isidore of Miletus and mathematician Anthemius of Tralles as architects; Anthemius, however, died within the first year of the endeavor. The construction is described in the Byzantine historian Procopius' On Buildings (Peri ktismatōn, Latin: De aedificiis). Columns and other marbles were brought from all over the empire, throughout the Mediterranean. The idea of these columns being spoils from cities such as Rome and Ephesus is a later invention.


circa 537-562 CE

The dome of Hagia Sophia is one of the most iconic features of this architectural masterpiece. The original dome of Hagia Sophia was constructed during the reign of Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century CE. The dome's immense size and grandeur were unprecedented in the ancient world. The original cupola collapsed entirely after the earthquake of 558 CE; in 563 a new dome was built by Isidore the Younger with a number of changes to the design including raised height and addition of ribs. Subsequently a large section of this dome structure also collased. The dome that survives today partly dates back to the mid-sixth and seventh centuries CE.

circa 537-1600 CE

Over the centuries, a considerable number of buttresses have been incorporated into the structure. Contrary to popular belief that the flying buttresses to the west of the building were constructed by the Crusaders during their visit to Constantinople, they were actually built during the Byzantine era. This indicates that the Romans had previous knowledge of flying buttresses, as evidenced by their presence in other locations such as the Rotunda of Galerius in Thessaloniki and the monastery of Hosios Loukas in Boeotia in Greece, as well as the octagonal basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Additional buttresses, totaling 24, were erected during the Ottoman period under the guidance of the architect Sinan. The incorporation of buttresses, both during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, highlights the continuous efforts to enhance the structural capabilities of Hagia Sophia.


circa 537 CE

Outer Narthex
The outer narthex or the exonarthex lies towards the north-west of the main complex. All of the doors of the outer narthex or exonarthex are in different size, made of leaded brass, and are not aligned with the doors of the inner narthex. Just like the inner narthex, the exonarthex is also very irregular in design and execution. During antiquity the outer narthex opened onto an atrium with a fountain. The exterior narthex appears notably plain and seems disconnected from the initial design. It contains five entrances leading to the inner narthex, designated for penitents and catechumens. During the Ottoman era, the outer narthex underwent significant alterations, losing its marble covering, mosaics, and being plastered. Following Hagia Sophia's conversion into a museum, the plaster was removed, revealing the underlying brick. The hooks positioned above the doors were intended for hanging draperies. Today the floor of the outer narthex is composed of different construction materials, including marble slabs and terracotta tiles, from the various parts of the Hagia Sophia.

circa 537 CE

Inner Narthex
Hagia Sophia's inner narthex is a chamber with nine vaulted bays, adorned with Byzantine-era embellishments such as marble panels and crosses positioned above certain doorways. Within the northern dome of the inner narthex, mosaics portray Mary and the infant Christ, encircled by the 16 ancestors of the Virgin Mary. This space served various functions, hosting public gatherings, including the clerical court responsible for adjudicating sanctuary claims in cases of murder. Pilgrims accessed the north aisle of Hagia Sophia through the final doorway of the inner narthex.

circa 537 CE

The expansive central basilica, known as the naos or nave, boasts a sophisticated architectural design featuring a complex arrangement of vaults and semi-domes. Its focal point is a towering central dome, exceeding 101 feet (31 meters) in diameter and reaching a height of 160 feet (48.5 meters). The nave of Hagia Sophia, measuring 250 feet in length, 100 feet in width, and 179 feet in height, is characterized by imposing rows of Verde Antico marble, grand arches, and the colossal dome. Originally constructed as a domed basilica, the church is supported by a total of 107 columns—40 on the ground floor and 67 in the galleries. The colossal Verde Antique columns on the ground floor, inclusive of capitals and bases, stand at an impressive height of 34 feet, showcasing diameters varying up to seven inches. Remarkably, these monoliths represent the largest columns ever extracted from this type of stone.

circa 537 CE

Sarcophagus of Irene of Hungary
Irene of Hungary (1088–1134 CE) was a Byzantine empress, the first wife of Emperor John II Komnenos. The sarcophagus of Eirene, crafted from Verde Antica Serpentinite Breccia and originally housed in the Pantokrator Monastery, underwent various relocations and transformations over time. Until at least the late 19th century, it stood outdoors near the former church, functioning as a fountain. In 1960, the sarcophagus found its way to Hagia Sophia, where it is currently situated in the outer narthex. Carved with modest crosses enclosed in circles, the markings have faded considerably over the years. Today, Hagia Sophia preserves a total of 14 marble tombs, with the majority located in the garden area.

circa 1450 CE


circa 1740 CE

Library of Sultan Mahmud I

Mosaics of Hagia Sophia

circa 537-1849 CE

There are a number of mosaics in Hagia Sophia Church, the first mosaics which adorned the church were completed during the reign of Justin II. Many of the non-figurative mosaics in the church come from this period. Most of the mosaics, however, were created in the 10th and 12th centuries, following the periods of Byzantine Iconoclasm.

Notable Architectural Elements

circa unknown

Marble Door
The Marble Door inside the Hagia Sophia is located in the southern upper enclosure or gallery. It was used by the participants in synods (council of church), who entered and left the meeting chamber through this door. It is said that each side is symbolic and that one side represents heaven while the other represents hell. Its panels are covered in fruits and fish motives. The door opens into a space that was used as a venue for solemn meetings and important resolutions of patriarchate officials.

circa 537 CE

Imperial Gate
The Emperor's Door or the Imperial Door is the door that would be used solely by the Emperor as well as his personal bodyguard and retinue. It is the largest door in the Hagia Sophia and has been dated to the 6th century. It is about 7 meters long and Eastern Roman sources say it was made with wood from Noah's Ark.

circa 1740 CE

Şadırvan Fountain
Ablution fountain (Şadırvan) was built in 1740 CE by Sultan Mahmud I over the site of a Byzantine Patriarchate, the fountain with its eight marble columns in the courtyard reflects the Ottoman Classical Art. Ablution is the ritual act of washing oneself with water before entering the mosque for prayer. It was constructed in the south-western corner of the plaza outside the Hagia Sophia.

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