Hagia Sophia is a renowned and captivating masterpiece of art and architecture. It is a testament to the skill and resilience of human creativity, standing the test of time and earning its place among the rarest and most valuable works of art. Located in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, Turkey, near the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia is a masterpiece of architectural beauty and an important historical monument for both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Originally a church, then a mosque, and now a museum in the Turkish Republic, Hagia Sophia has always been a valuable treasure of its time. It has been rebuilt three times on the same site, and it’s name has changed from Megale ekklesia (meaning big church) to Hagia Sophia (meaning Holy Wisdom).
The first church was constructed by Emperor Constantius II (337-361), son of Emperor Constantine I. It was a wooden-roofed basilica with a nave flanked by two or four aisles, each with a gallery storey, and was preceded by an atrium. Unfortunately, it was largely burned down in 404 during riots, as patriarch John Chrysostom was sent into exile by Emperor Arcadius. Today, some marble blocks from this second church can be seen in the courtyard of the third church, which is now the museum.
The second church was built by architect Ruffinos, under the orders of Emperor Theodosios II in 415. This church was also designed as a basilica, with its roof made of wood. It had five naves, three gates, and a monumental entrance. However, after the Nika Revolt against Emperor Justinian I (527-565), the second Hagia Sophia was burned down in 532.
The current Hagia Sophia was built by the Greek scientists Isidore, a physicist, and Anthemius, a mathematician, at the request of Emperor Justinian. It is a prime example of Byzantine architecture, adorned with stunning mosaics and marble pillars and coverings. Materials were brought from all over the empire, including yellow stone from Syria, porphyry (red marble) from Egypt, and Hellenic columns from the Artemis Temple in Ephesus. More than ten thousand people worked to construct this building and it was officially unveiled by the emperor in 537.
The mosaics were completed later on during the reign of Justin II (565-578). After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror (Fatih), Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and served as the main mosque of Istanbul for nearly 500 years. It served as a model for many of the Ottoman mosques in Istanbul such as the Beyazit Mosque, the Kalender Mosque, the Suleiman Mosque, and the Eyup Sultan Mosque. In the 16th and 17th centuries, a minbar, mihrab, and throne for sermons were added to the interior, as well as wooden bars. A library was also built by the order of Sultan Mahmud I.
The Hürrem Sultan Hamam, also known as the Turkish bath of the Ayasofya mosque complex, is located on the southwest side of Ayasofya, next to a park with a fountain. It was designed by the renowned architect Mimar Sinan and built for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. The hamam has been beautifully restored and is now open for use as a traditional Turkish bath.
In 1934, at the request of Turkish President Kemal Atatürk, Hagia Sofia was modernized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum. The prayer rugs were removed, revealing the marble beneath, but the mosaics were largely plastered over and the building was allowed to decay for some time. Some of the calligraphic panels were sent to other mosques, but eight roundels were left and can still be seen today.
Within Hagia Sophia, there is a sweating column in the corner of the church. The lower part of the column is encircled by a bronze belt and there is a hole to insert a finger. There are many legends and stories about the column. In the northern wing, there is a mosaic panel, and there are three panels, each with groups of three figures, in the southern wing.
A masterpiece of Byzantine mosaic art, known as “Deesis,” is illuminated by the light from a window in the southern gallery. The panel represents the last judgment and features three figures: Jesus in the center, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. The unusual arrangement of the mosaics in the background highlights the beauty of the figures, and the facial expressions are extremely realistic.
Another notable panel, located at the end of the southern gallery, is from the 12th century and depicts the Virgin Mary and Christ-Child, the Emperor Comnenus II, and the Empress Eirene. A panel on the side wall portrays the ailing Prince Alexius.
Hagia Sophia has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its architectural beauty.