The Hagia Sophia (meaning “Holy Wisdom” in Greek) has remained one of the most profound wonders of my study of architectural history and one that I always dreamed to visit in person.

Fortunate to make this reverie a reality, I was struck with awe by its massive size, vast interior space covered by a 184-foot-high dome, antiquity (you can smell its 1400 years of age) and unique history. It is the only building to have served as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Cathedral (during the 13th century), and finally an Imperial Sunni Islam Mosque, that is before Atatürk, the first Turkish President transformed it into a museum in 1935.

Hagia Sophia
Photo by Arild Vågen, Wikimedia Commons

Originally conceived by Constantine the Great upon his conversion to Christianity, the current building was constructed under the reign and supervision of the Eastern Roman Emporer Justinian the Great in the 6th century as a Byzantine basilica. It remained a basilica until the conquest of Constantinople.

In 1453, the Eastern Roman Empire fell to Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire when the city became Istanbul. At this time, the structure was converted to become the first imperial mosque of Istanbul, Aya Sofya Mosque.

Its Christian elements were removed and most of the mosaics were plastered over. Under Ottoman possession, Islamic features were added, including fountains, mausoleums, and its four minarets. Notice that one was built with red brick; the other three are from white limestone and sandstone.

These plan and section drawings show the original Byzantine construction: a ribbed dome surmounts a 100-foot square, with two hemicycles extending the central nave to 200 feet in length, and three minor apses at the east end (left), the center of which creating an unbroken length of 260 feet; arcades surround aisles and galleries to the north and south to form a square central footprint; the inner and outer narthex, or entrance porch expands the west end (right).

The dome is supported by four concave pendentives which serve to transition the circular shape of the dome to the square shape of the central structure. Wikimedia Commons
Below hangs the large Islam medallions with the names of Muhammad and Islam’s first caliphs written in caligraphy. The central nave, though vast in space, still feels relatively dark compared to other brighter mosques built in later years.

During the transition to a mosque, most Christian elements were pilfered or removed. And due to Islam’s ban on representational imagery, most of the mosaics were covered with Islamic geometric patterns and calligraphy.

However, several of the original gold mosaics have been restored. This one shows the contrasting glimmer of the gold mosaics that was plastered and painted over. In the restoration process, both cultures and their historical value were respected.

Byzantine basket capitals top the columns
Islamic Iznik tiles and calligraphy

One has to appreciate the unique history of this building and the importance of maintaining the balance between both its Christian and Islamic roots. It all tells the story of the centuries-old history of Istanbul, once ConstantinopleByzantium before that.

The Hagia Sophia sits proudly among the world’s greatest architectural achievements and as one that I will be forever grateful to have experienced.

All Photos in this post are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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