Hagia Sophia History

Hagia Sophia
Photo by: Arild Vågen Creative Commons

The Hagia Sophia is an icon for tourists visiting the city of Istanbul in Turkey. The remarkable building is an age-old symbol of Christianity. The history of this massive structure is credited to Emperor Constantine, a onetime ruler of the Roman Empire. Records have it that the building was constructed some 1,500 years ago.

Today, the structure, which took five years to build, has one hundred square meter columns and forty windows. The church stands right on the peak of the temple of Apollo and has played a vital role to the society around it for more than a thousand years.

Hagia Sophia’s History

Hagia Sophia is a domed monument which was built in the 6th century A.D. as a church. The structure was meant to serve the subjects of the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire during and after the Reign of Empire Constantine. It features a great arched ceiling, a giant nave and two floors. The building has held many purposes. At one time it served as a church, later a mosque and currently it stands as a museum. The 270 ft by 240 ft monument is seen as a fountain of holy wisdom. In fact, it is said that its name “Holy Sophia” is a Turkish version of the phrase “Holy Wisdom”.

The Two Churches

The first church was constructed next to the imperial palace near Hagia Eirene and was inaugurated in 360 by Bishop Eudoxius of Antioch. Due its massive size, it is said to have been one of the greatest structures on earth during its time. The local people named it “Magna Ecclesia,” which in Latin means “The Great Church.” The building is believed to have had a traditional Latin edifice and a wooden roof. The Great Church was destroyed in 404 when riots broke out.

The second church was ordered to be built by Theodosius II in 415 and was constructed by an architect named Rufinus. Just like the previous church, it was roofed using wood. It was however destroyed by fire during the Nika revolt which took place in 532. Some pieces of the consequent wreckage are available for viewing to date.

The Current Structure

The third and the final structure was commissioned by Emperor Justinian I who sought the support of Anthemius of Tralles, a renowned Mathematician, and Isidore of Mellitus, a great physicist. Unlike with his predecessors, Justinian I chose to construct the Hagia Sophia in a unique and majestic manner.

Historical records show that he invested plenty of his time and resources towards the completion of the building. Some accounts claim that some of the materials used to erect the building came from as far as Egypt and Syria. It is alleged that over ten thousand workers were hired to offer both manual and professional labor.

The official inauguration of the church was held in 537 with much pomp and circumstance. By then the noticeable mosaic patterns, a prominent feature of the current building, were not there. These aesthetics were added later in 578 during the reign of Emperor Justinian II. During those days, the church was principally used as the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and was set aside for major coronations and ceremonies.

On the Verge of Collapse

In August, 553 the building came close to collapsing after the effects of earthquakes. Other quakes that took place in 557 caused major cracks on its main dome and almost brought down the Eastern semi-dome. Subsequent earthquakes in 558 destroyed the main dome thereby destroying the ciborium, altar and ambon. Historians claim that the fall could have been due an overload of materials on the dome which was too flat in terms of design.

The ruling emperor ordered the dome reconstructed, a task he entrusted to Isidore Mellitus’ nephew. He utilized lighter types of materials to raise a 30 ft dome giving the building its current 182 foot height. The younger Isidore erected a ribbed dome with a diameter of about 33.5 meters which changed the structure of the dome in a great way. This reconstruction exercise was completed in 562 giving this historical monument its present day look.

The Reign of Emperor Leo

During the reign of Emperor Leo, the building underwent some major changes which saw it lose a substantial numbers of its icons in a period dubbed “Byzantine Iconoclasm.” During this span of time all statues and religious pictures were scrapped from the building. Later, during the rule of Emperor Theophilus, the culture of iconoclasts made its way back to the building. This time the initial works were replaced by Islamic inspired arts.

The building was turned into a mosque after Sultan Mehmed conquered the entire region of the present day Turkey and its environs. It retained its central role as an Islam worship center until early 1935 when it was converted into a museum.

Current Condition

Since 1935, the huge building has served as a museum. The carpets that characterized its first design were removed and replaced with marble floors. The white mosaic patterns were also removed. Nevertheless, the initial condition of the building deteriorated. In 1998, the copper roof caved in due to pressure and old age causing water to leak down the mosaics and fragile frescoes. The interiors of the monument started wearing out at an extremely fast pace. It was repaired and given a fresh coat of paint. The Turkish ministry of Culture has since played a leading role in its protection and preservation. Today Hagia Sophia stands tall as one of the oldest well maintained structures in the world.

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