Building history

First built by emperor Theodosios in 360, Agia Sofia (then called Megalo Ekklesia) was burned to the groung in 404. It was rebuilt by emperor Theodosios II (408-450), inaugurated on October 10, 415, but razed again by fire during the Nika revolt in January 13-14, 532.

Shortly after (according to the Byzantine historian Prokopios, only 39 days later on February 23 of the same year) the emperor Justinian (527-565) commissioned the architects Isidoros of Miletos and Anthemious of Tralles with the reconstruction of the building. It was reopened for worship in 537.

Socrates the Chronicler (380-440) claims that it was Constantine the Great (324-337) who first built a church at this sight, but there is no archeological evidence to support the assertion.

Remains of the Theodosios basilika

Architecturally a basilica with dome represented a new church construction that necessitated the implementation of new support structures. Without steel, the sole support of the four arches that carry the dome is four solid piers, each measuring about 118 square yards at the base. The arches connect in a square formation and are linked by four pendentives. The apices of the arches together with the pendentives support the circular base of the dome which is pierced by forty single-arched windows. The church itself measures 260 x 270 feet; the dome rises 210 feet above the floor and has a diameter of 110 feet. The nave is 135 feet wide, more than twice the width of the aisles which measure 62 feet.

The dome construction became universal in Byzantine churches and is often perceived as the vault of heaven, assuming a quasi-liturgical function. At most 80 priests, 150 deacons, 60 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 cantors and 75 doorkeepers served at Agia Sofia. The name Agia Sofia came into use in the 5th century.

Geometrical relations for first dome construction

Three earthquakes (Aug 15 553, Jan 14 557, May 7 559) led to the collapse of the dome. A new and 2.65 m higher dome was installed by Isidorus the younger, late nephew of the initial architect Isodorus. Now the sides of the dome rested vertically on the bases. The form of the building has not been altered since.

Geometrical relations for second dome construction

On March 29, 867 the mosaic of the Virgin and Child in the apse positioned 30 m above the floor was dedicated.

Two earthquakes (Feb 9, 869 and Oct 25, 986) did considerable damage to the west side of the building and the church was closed for repairs conducted by architect Tridat until 994.

In addition to the natural causes the struggle between east and west Church contributed its own share to the devastation of the building. It began in 1054, as a legate of Pope Leo IX walked into Hagia Sophia's afternoon prayer service, went right up to the main altar, and placed on it a parchment that excommunicated the current Patriarch of Constantinople, thus initiating the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christians. As the army of 4th Crusade looted and ransacked the city in 1203, they also vandalized Agia Sofia and Emperor Alexius IV, who was in debt to the Latins, was forced to hand over many objects from Agia Sofia. Everything of value that they could put their hands on was confiscated. According to the Byzantine historian Nicetas Acominatus, the altar of Our Lady was demolished, the church was desecrated in many ways and relics were stolen and taken to the west. Latin occupation lasted till 1261, when the Byzantines recaptured the city and where able to revive the empire for a short while.

Foundation of first minaret

In 1344 another violent earthquake caused serious cracks in an already dilapidated building. Several parts collapsed in 1346, and also parts od the dome in 1348. A decade later restoration was caried out by two Latin architects, Astras and Peralta, but as a whole the building remained in a state of disrepair.

When after a 53 days siege the Ottoman army conquered Constantinople (Κωνσταντινούπολη) in 1453, the building again was in a disasterous condition. Sultan Mehmed II allocated large funds for repairs and turned the building into a mosque, which was to be its function for 500 years. He added an altar (Mihrab) and the red brick minaret in the south east corner (later modified). Sultan Bayezid (1484-1512) added the second minaret in the north east corner. The cross on top of the dome was replaced with a crescent.

Initially the turks preserved the Christian Mosaics and frescoes, but in the 16th cent they were coverd by plaster. Also, rounded plates of 7.50 m in diameter with quarnic inscriptions were placed in the four corners underneath the dome. they contain the names of Allah, Mohammed, Omar, Usman, Ali, Hasan, Abu Bakir and Hüseyin. The calligrapher was Kazasker Mustafa Ýzzet Effendi.

During the reign of Sultan Murad III the two minarets that flank the entrance of the building were added by architect Sinan. Murad III also had the marble water jars from Pergamon brought and placed in the Agia Sofia.

By order of Kemal Atatürk in 1934, Agia Sofia was converted into a museum, commemorating the legacy of both Christian and Muslim culture.

Marble jar from Pergamon (~300 BCE)


Agia Sofia




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Building history
Procopius-De Aedificis
Exterior views
Main Hall
North Gallery
South Gallery
West Gallery
Ceiling decorations