Built in 537 in the imperial capital of Constantinople, Hagia Sofia was the largest Eastern Orthodox Church of the Byzantine Empire. Its name means sacred wisdom of a holy and divine nature, and indeed lives up to the hype.
After Constantinople was conquered in 1453 the church fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire and was converted into a mosque. Today, Hagia Sophia is undeniably the most significant monument in Istanbul.
First up, Hagia Sofia it is one of the oldest cathedrals left standing in the world and has existed for roughly 1,484 years now. It was also once the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years until the Seville Cathedral in Spain was constructed in 1520.
Hagia Sophia once held the title of the fastest built church within five years and has one of the largest domes in diameter. It is also one of the oldest surviving buildings that are still considered places of worship.
Hagia Sophia has been standing for around fifteen centuries. From Byzantium to the Crusades and the Fall of Constantinople, Ayasofya has seen its share of battles and strife. It has survived many earthquakes and fires, and it has also undergone several repairs and rebuilds.
Cathedral or Mosque
Hagia Sophia is originally an Orthodox Christian cathedral that was later converted into a mosque. It is one of the most magnificent structures of the Byzantine Empire. It’s considered a sacred place for Christian people. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque happened in 1453 when the Ottoman State conquered Istanbul. From then on, it has also become a valuable and sacred place for Muslims.
With so many different rulers presiding over the land that is Istanbul today, Hagia Sophia has had many names over the years. In Byzantine times it was originally known as Megale Ekklesia, or the Great Church. Then around 430 CE, it became the Church of Hagia Sophia or Church of Holy Wisdom/Divine Wisdom, which are the English translations.
After Constantinople fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire, it was renamed the Ayasofya Camii or the Hagia Sophia Mosque. Then in the era of the Turkey Republic, it was turned into a museum and became known as the Ayasofya Muzesi or the Hagia Sofia Museum.
In 2020, it became a mosque again and is now officially called the Ayasofya-i Kebir Cami-i Serifi or the Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque.
The Byzantine Emperor opened the cathedral in 360 CE as the Megale Ekklesia, or the Great Church. The wooden roof caught in a fire in 404 CE and because of this, the church had to be rebuilt for the first time.
In 537, the reconstruction of the church ended, and then it took its current form. According to Byzantine historians, at that time, the Hagia Sophia was the largest building worldwide next to the Egyptian Pyramids. From 565 to 578, the various mosaics surrounding the interiors of the cathedral was made and completed.
Upon the arrival of the Crusaders in 1204, Hagia Sophia was converted into a Roman Catholic church. When the Byzantines regained power over Istanbul in 1261, the cathedral was again an Orthodox church.
Fall of Constantinople
During the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Hagia Sophia became a mosque. Minarets or tall, slender towers were built and added to the original structure.
The Hagia Sophia, though used as a mosque, was closed in 1931 for restoration purposes. Thomas Whittemore requested the revival of the mosaics found inside the mosque. Whittemore was an American archaeologist and is the founder of the Byzantine Institute of America.
In 1935, the famous mosque was turned into a museum open for public visits. Under the permission of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the reconstruction was completed in 1947. During this process, the Hagia Sophia was re-opened as a museum and available for visitors.
The Hagia Sofia was once again restored in 1997 for tourism purposes and became Turkey’s most visited museum in 2015. A total of about 3,425,000 visitors were recorded at that time.
It remained as a museum from 1935 to 2020. In line with the presidential decree announced in 2020, it has become a mosque again. On July 24, 2020, Friday prayers were performed after 86 years. Efforts to maintain the beauty and restore the other parts of the mosque still continue today.
The unique architecture of Hagia Sofia dates back to Byzantine times when it was a cathedral. This glorious place of worship was designed by Greek geometers Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles.
The underwent many changes, during the crusades, and under the Ottoman era when it became a mosque with minarets being added. Still, in the face so many challenges, Hagia Sofia had stood strong and magical up to the present day.
When Mehmed_the_Conqueror took over Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia became a shelter for injured Byzantine soldiers, women, and children. On June 1 of the same year, Fatih Sultan Mehmet performed the first Friday prayer. The church became the conqueror’s symbol and, under the Ottoman rule, he announced it as a mosque from then on. There were changes in the features of the interior. The altar and the pulpit were constructed, while the bell and the cross were removed. The mosaics, on the other hand, were luckily only covered, but not destroyed.
Minarets were added to Hagia Sophia after it was turned into a mosque with the first minaret being constructed in 1481. Restorations and establishments of new minarets were done by different sultans, and why the four minarets of Hagia Sophia are different in style. This was in response to the effect of the numerous earthquakes that shook the foundation throughout the years.
With such a storied history from bygone ears, legends were bound to pop up. From weeping columns, doomsday dates written in stone, and door counts that keep changing, there is intrigue everywhere you look in Hagia Sofia.
The doors of the Hagia Sophia have been linked with a mysterious legend. It is said that 101 of the 361 doors are talismanic. Whenever these doors are being counted, one extra door appears.
It is said that the date of the doomsday written by Hz Hizir can be found inside the Hagia Sophia. The said date is located on the third-row pillar found when entering the south door of the building.
Virgin Mary’s Weeping Column
This Weeping Column was once located in the House of the Virgin Mary. It is believed that when Mary heard that Jesus was captured and tortured, she wept, and one of her tears melted and got imprinted on the pillar. This pillar was taken from the House of the Virgin Mary and transferred to Hagia Sophia to bless the latter’s construction. The column is considered sacred and is one of the main features of Hagia Sophia. Many people make wishes while placing their fingers in the hole reputedly formed by Mary’s teardrop.
When the Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque, various Islamic decorations and patterns were added to make it an Islamic temple. A verse stating Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth is written on the dome. The plates hanged above shows the names of God, Muhammad, and the four great caliphs. These plates were made inside the mosque and are larger than the entrance gates. During the Republican Era, when the mosque was converted into a museum, the authorities wanted to take the plates away. But because of their size that could not fit outside the gates, they could not be removed. Hence, they remained and are still found inside.