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Quick Facts on the Hagia Sophia

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Aya Sofya Ayasofya Church of Holy Wisdom Hagia Sophia Hagia Sophia, Istanbul St. Sophia
Aya Sofya Square
Sultanahmet  neighborhood
Main date(s)
41.008548° N, 28.979938° E
Opening hours
Tue-Sun 9am-4:30pm
10YTL to grounds and main floor; another 10YTL for gallery

Historical Timeline of the Hagia Sophia

24 December 537
Hagia Sophia Completed
Crusaders attack, desecrate and plunder the Hagia Sophia. Today, most of Hagia Sophia's riches can be seen in the treasury of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.


The original Hagia Sophia was built on this site in the fourth century by Constantine the Great. Constantine was the first Christian emperor and the founder of the city of Constantinople, "the New Rome." The Hagia Sophia was one of several great churches he built in important cities throughout his empire.

Following the destruction of Constantine's church, a second was built by his son Constantius and the Theodosius the Great. This church burned to the ground during the Nika riots of 532, though fragments of it have been excavated and can be seen outside the church.

Hagia Sophia attained her present form between 532 and 537 under the personal supervision of Emperor Justinian I. The result was both the culminating architectural achievement of Late Antiquity and the first masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Its influence, both architecturally and liturgically, was widespread and enduring throughout the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim worlds. After completion, Justinian is said to have exclaimed, Νενίκηκά σε Σολομών ("Solomon, I have outdone thee!").

Justinian's architects were Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, professors of geometry at the University of Constantinople. Their work was a technical triumph, though the structure was severely damaged several times by earthquakes. The original dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558 and its replacement fell in 563. Steps were taken to secure the dome, but there were additional partial collapses in 989 and 1346.

For over 900 years the Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for church councils and imperial ceremonies. But in 1204, it was ruthlessly attacked, desecrated and plundered by Crusaders, who also ousted the Patriarch of Constantinople and replaced him with a Latin bishop. This event cemented the division of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches that had begun with the Great Schism of 1054. Most of Hagia Sophia's riches can be seen today not in Istanbul, but in the treasury of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.

Despite this violent setback, Hagia Sophia remained a functioning church until May 29, 1453, when Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror entered triumphantly into the city of Constantinople. He was amazed at the beauty of the Hagia Sophia and immediately converted it into his imperial mosque. Hagia Sophia served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for almost 500 years. It became a model for many of the Ottoman mosques in the city, including the Blue Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque, the Shehzade Mosque and the Rustem Pasha Mosque.

No major structural changes were made at first; the addition of a mihrab (prayer niche), minbar (pulpit) and a wooden minaret made a mosque out of the church, and all the faces depicted in the church's mosaics were covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative religious imagery. Various additions were made over the centuries by successive sultans.

Sultan Mehmed II built a madrasa (religious school) near the mosque and organized a waqf for its expenses. Extensive restorations were conducted by Mimar Sinan during the rule of Selim II, including the original sultan's loge and another minaret. Mimar Sinan built the mausoleum of Selim II to the southeast of the mosque in 1577 and the mausoleums of Murad III and Mehmed III were built next to it in the 1600s. Mahmud I ordered a restoration of the mosque in 1739 and added an ablution fountain, Koranic school, soup kitchen and library, making the mosque the center of a social complex.

The most famous restoration of the Hagia Sophia was completed between 1847-49 by Abdülmecid II, who invited Swiss architects Gaspare and Guiseppe Fossati to renovate the mosque. The brothers consolidated the dome and vaults, straightened columns,and revised the decoration of the exterior and the interior.

The discovery of the figural mosaics after the secularization of Hagia Sophia was guided by the descriptions of the Fossati brothers, who had uncovered them a century earlier for cleaning and recording. The Fossatis also added the calligraphic roundels that remain today. They were commissioned to calligrapher Kazasker Izzet Efendi and replaced older panels hanging on the piers.

In 1934, under Turkish president Kemal Ataturk, Hagia Sofia was secularized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum. The prayer rugs were removed, revealing the marble beneath, but the mosaics remained largely plastered over and the building was allowed to decay for some time. Some of the calligraphic panels were moved to other mosques, but eight roundels were left and can still be seen today.

A 1993 UNESCO mission to Turkey noted falling plaster, dirty marble facings, broken windows, decorative paintings damaged by moisture, and ill-maintained lead roofing. Cleaning, roofing and restoration have since been undertaken; many recent visitors have found their view obstructed by a huge scaffolding stretching up into the dome in the center of the nave.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

Description of the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia has a central plan, with a footprint 230 feet (70 m) wide by 246 feet (75 m) long. A great dome covers the central area. With a diameter of 102 feet (31 m), it is only slightly smaller than that of the Pantheon in Rome. Designed by Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, professors of geometry at the University of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was a technical triumph, though the structure was severely damaged several times by earthquakes.

The exterior has little decoration; its simple stuccoed walls revealing the technological and aesthetic qualities of the celebrated building. Later additions to Justinian's church include the buttresses on all sides, intended to provide support during earthquakes, and the four minarets added when the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque by the Ottomans. Clustered around the Hagia Sophia are various small buildings, including the Little Baptistery and Ottoman tombs.

In contrast to the sober exterior, all interior surfaces are sheathed with polychrome marble, green and white with purple porphyry, and gold mosaics.

The central dome is carried on pendentives: four concave triangular sections of masonry which solve the problem of setting the circular base of a dome on a rectangular base. Each pendentive is decorated with a seraphim. The weight of the dome passes through the pendentives to four massive piers at the corners, and between them the dome seems to float upon four great arches.

At the western and eastern ends, the arches are extended by semi-domes. The flat wall on each side of the interior (north and south) is called a tympanum, and each one has 12 large windows in two rows, seven in the lower and five in the upper.

While some of the columns are reused from earlier buildings, most were freshly made for the Hagia Sophia from Proconnesian marble quarried from the nearby Marmara islands. These quarries seem to have ceased production in the 6th century; the Hagia Sophia was one of the last major buildings to use them.

Just inside the left entrance in the north aisle is the famous "sweating pillar." Legend has it that St Gregory Thaumaturgus, known for his wonderworking abilities, appeared in the Hagia Sophia after its completion and gave this pillar healing powers. It was thought to be especially helpful for eye diseases and infertility. Church authorities sheathed the column in brass to protect it from the touches of devotees but they pierced a hole in it; some still place a finger in the hole with hopes of healing today.

Most of the furnishings on the ground floor date from the Islamic period. A beautiful marble structure in the apse is the mihrab, a niche found in all mosques that indicates the direction of Mecca. The large freestanding stairway to the right of the mihrab is the minbar, or pulpit from which sermons were given. To the left of the mihrab is the grand sultan's loge, built by the Fossati brothers who restored the Hagia Sophia in the 1800s.

The Hagia Sophia preserves many important Byzantine mosaics, most of which are in the galleries on the upper floor. The South Gallery, where the great mosaics are, was used for church councils. When the Hagia Sophia was a mosque, women sat in the galleries during worship services. Today, the galleries provide visitors with a commanding view of the nave from all sides and a closeup view of some of the best Byzantine mosaics to be seen anywhere.

Holly Hayes
October 27, 2011

Bibliography of the Hagia Sophia

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