Hagia Sophia – Byzantine Architectural Wonder

If you love architecture, then you probably love visiting cathedrals as much as I do. Besides their historical and religious significance, they represent the best engineering and architectural achievements of their day. So I was really looking forward to our visit to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture, and for nearly a thousand years it was the world’s largest cathedral.

The vast, central basilica has a central large dome supported by two half domes on the eastern and western sides.


 Historical context of Hagia Sophia

  • 532 AD Emperor Justinian I orders the Hagia Sophia church built.
  • 537 Hagia Sophia is completed.
  • 1296 Il Duomo in Florence, Italy—construction begins and is completed in 1436 with the dome engineered by Brunelleschi.
  • 1453 Hagia Sophia is converted to a mosque. Repairs are made and minarets are added.
  • 1506 Construction begins on St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City.
  • 1609 Construction begins on Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque of Istanbul), and is completed in 1616.
  • 1626 St. Peter’s Basilica is completed.
  • 1935 The Turkish government secularizes the Hagia Sophia, and it opens as a museum.

The Church

The first two churches on this site were destroyed by riots and fire. Emperor Justinian I orders a new church that will be the largest building in the world. This new building, designed by Greek architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos, was completed in 537, incredibly in less than six years.

The structure features a central dome with a diameter of over 101 feet (31 meters) and a height of 160 feet (48.5 meters).

Byzantine mosaic detail

Mosaic detail of Jesus Christ.

Materials for construction were brought from all over the empire, including columns from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.

The Mosque

After Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453, Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque until the early twentieth century. During this period, minarets were added, Christian symbols and mosaics were covered or removed, and exterior buttresses were added for structural support.

Portion of cross removed.

A few Christian symbols survived, and others are being restored as the Hagia Sophia is now a museum.

Islamic tile detail.

In the 15th century, during the Ottoman period, many structural repairs and improvements were made. In the 16th century the minarets were added.

The Museum

In 1934, the Turkish government secularized the building, converting it into a museum. Today repairs are being made and the original mosaics are being restored. The Hagia Sophia has fewer treasures than Saint Peter’s in the Vatican, for example. But perhaps because of this we could really focus on and appreciate the structure itself, and the treasures that have been revealed through restoration.

Detail of a restored angel.

With the Ottoman additions, you can see the influence of the Hagia Sophia on future mosques such as the Blue Mosque.

Hagia Sophia by night

15 replies
  1. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go says:

    This has been on our bucket list almost from the moment we decided to travel as it has to be one of the most beautiful and intriguing places in the world. It’s hard to believe that the church was built in less than six years as the detail and design is so amazingly original. Everything about this place is magnificent!

  2. Leigh
    Leigh says:

    What a magnificent structure and such a sight at night.Hard to fathom the time, the work, and even the plans themselves that went into this cathedral.


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