Named Hagia Sophia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin, the Church of the Divine Wisdom in English, and Ayasofya in Turkish, Istanbul’s most famous monument has a long and diverse history. The structure standing today in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district was built in the 6th Century during the rule of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. It was the third church built at the location, the site of Byzantium’s acropolis.
“Modern” Hagia Sophia was consecrated in 537 as a Christian basilica. In 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. It remained as a mosque until 1931 when the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, secularized it. In 1935 Hagia Sophia was designated as a museum and in 1985 it was included as part of the “Historic Areas of Istanbul” UNESCO World Heritage listing .
From the outside the Hagia Sophia is impressively massive in a blocky utilitarian way. (In the 6th Century, Byzantine architecture was far from its peak.) Hagia Sophia was for a 1,000 years the largest cathedral in the world.
The inside has more impact and more refinement than the outside. Stepping through the thick walls into Hagia Sophia’s interior reveals a dramatic space. A cascade of domes and half domes span the cavernous interior. The top of the highest dome is 182 ft above the floor. Marble covered walls, pillars, and arched windows support the ornate roof. Included within are eight Corinthian columns that were disassembled from Baalbek, Lebanon, and shipped to Constantinople for Justinian’s construction project.
Hagia Sophia’s history is told in its decorations. Christian mosaics, covered during Hagia Sophia’s time as a mosque, were revealed during modern renovations. These mosaics can now be seen amongst the stylized patterns and Arabic script of the Ottoman era. The combination of Hagia Sophia’s religious decorations and its architectural grandeur make the interior a spectacle.
Entering Hagia Sophia is an awe-inspiring step inside an ancient jewel box. Indeed, pictures of the interior, as impressive as they might be, don’t do the building justice. This is a place that has to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.