The “Church of the Holy Wisdom,” Haghia Sophia is among the world’s greatest architectural achievements. More than 1,400 years old, it stands as a testament to the sophistication of 6th-century Constantinople, and had a huge influence on architecture in the centuries that followed.
The vast edifice was built over two earlier churches and inaugurated by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 537. In the 15th century, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque: the minarets, tombs, and fountains date from this period.
To help support the structure’s great weight, the exterior has been buttressed on numerous occasions, which has partly obscured its original shape.
THE GROUND FLOOR
The interior of Haghia Sophia succeeds in imparting a truly celestial feel. Highlights include the fine Byzantine mosaics, mostly dating from the 9th century or later. The most conspicuous features at ground level are those added by the Ottoman sultans after the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, when the church was converted into a mosque. These comprise the mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca, the minbar, a platform used by the imam to deliver sermons; the Sultan’s loge, a safe place in which the sultan could pray; and the Kursu, a throne used by the imam while reading from the Koran.
UPPER WALLS AND DOME MOSAICS
The apse is dominated by a large and striking mosaic showing the Virgin with the infant Jesus on her lap. Two other mosaics, unveiled in 867, depict the archangels Gabriel and Michael, although only fragments of the latter remain. Portraits of the saints Ignatius the Younger, John Chrysostom, and Ignatius Theophorus adorn niches in the north tympanum. In a concave area at the base of the dome is a mosaic of the six-winged seraphim. The dome is decorated with Koranic inscriptions (calligraphic roundels) It was once covered in gold mosaic tiles.
When Emperor Constantine I (r. 306-337) chose Byzantium for his capital and renamed it Constantinople, he amassed artists, architects, and craftsmen to build his new imperial city. They came mainly from Rome, bringing with them an Early Christian style. Eastern influences were added to this and a distinct Byzantine style evolved. Churches, once based on a longitudinal design, became centralized — as at Haghia Sophia — with an eastern apse and three aisles. Mosaics depicting angels, archangels and saints, in hierarchical order, covered the interiors and the Virgin Mary would be pictured in one of the domes. Figures were front-on, with large, penetrating eyes, and set against a gold background. Sculpture took the form of small relief carvings, rather than figures. The Byzantines were also sophisticated metalworkers, producing bronze church doors inlaid with silver.
These were originally used by women during services.
Among the ruins of the monumental entrance to the second church on the site (dedicated in AD 415) is a frieze of sheep.
The church’s splendid Byzantine mosaics include this one at the end of the south gallery. It depicts Christ flanked by Emperor Constantine IX and his wife, the Empress Zoe.
A mosaic of a six-winged angel has recently been uncovered on one of the triangular sections that support the dome.
Visitors cannot fail to be staggered by this vast space, which is covered by a huge dome reaching a height of 184 ft (56 m).
This square of patterned marble flooring marks the supposed location of the Byzantine emperor’s throne.
The eight caligraphic roundels – painted wooden plaques – were added in the 19th century.
Built around 1740, this fountain is an exquisite example of Turkish Rococo style. Its projecting roof is painted with floral reliefs.
Mausoleum of Selim II
The oldest of the three mausoleums was completed in 1577 to the plans of Sinan, Suleyman I’s imperial architect. Its exquisite interior is entirely covered with Iznik tiles.
Mausoleum of Murat III
The sultan was buried here in 1599. By the time of his death, he had fathered 103 children
Part of the 6th-century church, this now serves as the tomb of two Ottoman sultans.
Crowds often gather around the pillar of St. Gregory the Miracle-Worker in the northwest corner of the ground floor. Moisture seeping from this brass-dad column is believed to have healing powers.
360: Inauguration of the first Haghia Sophia on the site. A bigger church is built in 415; it burns down in 532.
532: Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus are commisioned to build a new church.
1453: After conquering Constantinople, the Ottomans convert Haghia Sophia into a mosque.
1934: Haghia Sophia is secularized and turned into a museum.