Dedicated on December 26th, 537 by the emperor Justinian, the great church of Haghia Sophia was the religious centre of the Byzantine Empire for nine hundred years. After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it served as an imperial mosque of the Ottoman Empire.
Before becoming a place of worship the Hagia Sophia was a mathematical problem that required risk-taking to be solved. Justinian chose celebrated Greek mathematicians Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus as the master-builders. Both were experts on Plato and Pythagoras and in the field of solid geometry, but neither of them was a builder.
Justinian brought in skilled workers from all over the Empire and spared no money in ordering the finest marbles from the quarries of Greece, Egypt, Africa and Asia. Despite all its hurdles, in 5 years and 10 months, the project was completed.
Building the Hagia Sophia was an experimental process. Complex theories were first tested on paper before being tested in stone, marble and brick. The initial construction proved to be too daring for the structures in place, causing the massive dome to collapse several times.
Changes had to be made which included increasing the height of the dome and strengthening the sidewalls with buttresses. These and other additions over the years are what give the Hagia Sofia it’s rather odd and random outer shape.
By the time the Turks took over the city of Constantinople, the Hagia Sofia had fallen into disrepair. However, the fact that Mehmet the Conqueror chose it as the place to proclaim his victory is proof of its importance and influence.
He took it upon himself to repair it, plastering over all the mosaics and adding all the trappings of an imperial mosque which it remained for 500 years. This magnificent structure has witnessed the fall of three empires – Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman and the birth of the Turkish Republic. In 1934 it was declared a museum.
Standing beneath the dome, I am filled with awe and wonder. I have never before seen anything as beautiful before. I take in all the details – the delicate leaf carvings that crown the marble columns, the intricate mosaics and the harmonious proportions. The dome dominates the inside space, forcing the eyes to perpetually lookup which makes me feel small.
What I am impressed with most are the large block marble tiles that line the walls. Made by slicing one block in two, the various veined patterns mirror each other, opening out like a book. Some are red, some green and others purple. (You can see an example of this below.)
I recommend visiting the Hagia Sofia twice – once to allow your eyes to adjust to what they are looking at and the second, to take it all in. The Highs Sophia stands on the seventh hill of Istanbul, directly opposite the Blue Mosque, separated by a park and a fountain where locals in the summer love to picnic.