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Reflections of the Byzantine: The History of Hagia Sophia

Posted June 11th, 2012
by Staff Writers

Travelers to Istanbul, Turkey, can find a rich history of many cultures and amazing architecture when they visit the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest Christian Church for about 1000 years and contains many superb mosaics.

Restoration of Mosaics

Even though the lower section of the Deesis mosaic panel has suffered damage, it is still one of the most magnificent Byzantine mosaics. It portrays Christ in the center with the Virgin Mary on His left and St. John the Baptist on His right. Their facial expressions are quite realistic and fitting with the theme of supplication for humanity at the judgment. Its precise date is unknown, but is probably from the early 12th century.

According to a, A restoration team from the Byzantine Institute of America uncovered all the major mosaics in the 1930s but left many simple cross images covered with plaster. The restoration process is challenging because the building has been a mosque as well as a church during its long history. Teams must destroy important, historic Islamic art to uncover the Christian iconographic mosaics. Restorers try to keep a balance between both cultures, but there is a great controversy about the Islamic calligraphy on the cathedral’s dome because it is covering the Pantocrator mosaic of Christ as Master of the World.


The central dome that covers the nave is over 182 feet high and sits atop an arcade consisting of 40 arched windows. Those windows create a mystical quality of light and make the dome appear to hover above the nave. Large granite columns in the edifice weigh more than 70 tons each.

Fountain of Purification

An Important Greek Palindrome reveals that the Fountain of Purification standing in the Hagia Sophia courtyard is inscribed with a palindrome that you can read from left to right or right to left, which says, “Wash your sin not only your face.”

The Name

Hagia Sofia means Holy Wisdom in English. The church’s full name in Greek is Church of the Holy Wisdom of God and refers to Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.


Socrates of Constantinople said in a 440 writing that Constantius II built the first church and that he was working on it in 346. Arian bishop Eudoxius of Antioch inaugurated the church in 360. However, a more recent tradition reports that Constantine the Great built the edifice.

When Constantinople’s patriarch, John Chrysostom, publicly criticized the emperor’s wife in 404, he had to go into exile. Because of the ensuing riots, the first church burned down, and nothing remains of it today.

Theodosius II ordered a second church and inaugurated it in 415. The architect, Rufinus, built it with a wooden roof, and the basilica burned to the ground during the Nika Revolt in 532. Several marble blocks, including reliefs depicting the 12 apostles represented by 12 lambs, survived the fire.

About a month after the second cathedral’s devastation, Emperor Justinian I determined to erect a bigger, more magnificent cathedral and selected mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and physicist Isidore of Miletus as architects. The emperor brought exotic material from all over his empire and employed over 100 master builders and 10,000 laborers to construct the edifice. The patriarch Eutychius helped the emperor inaugurate the new church in 537, but artists did not finish the mosaics until about 30 years later. The major work of architecture may have employed the theories of Heron of Alexandria to overcome the challenges of building the expansive dome over such a large space. Hagia Sophia had many holy relics, and a 49-foot high silver iconostasis was one of the unique items in the church.

The church suffered from several earthquakes, and one of them collapsed the main dome. The dome’s collapse destroyed the ambon, altar and ciborium. The emperor employed Isidorus the Younger to restore the dome. He used lighter materials, altered its style with ribs and pendentives and made it 30 feet higher, finishing the renovation in 562.

Byzantine iconoclasm began in 726 when emperor Leo the Isaurian issued edicts against venerating images and ordered his army to destroy all icons. Faithful Christians removed all religious statues and pictures from the Hagia Sophia at that time.

After a great earthquake in 989, emperor Basil II asked Armenian architect Trdat to direct repairs. He re-opened the church in 994 after six years of reconstruction. Artists then renovated the decorations and added new paintings of Christ, the Virgin Mary holding Jesus and flanked by Peter and Paul, four large cherubs, prophets and teachers.

Latin Christians ransacked and desecrated the church during the Fourth Crusade. They sent a stone from the tomb of Jesus, the shroud of Jesus, the Virgin Mary’s milk, bones of several saints and other relics to churches in the West at that time.

Roman Catholics converted the church to a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin occupation between 1204 and 1261. Byzantines recaptured the edifice in 1261 when it was in a state of dilapidation. Emperor Andronicus II ordered the building of four new buttresses in 1317, but a 1344 earthquake damaged the church and caused several parts of the building to collapse in 1346. The church then closed until architects Astras and Peralta made repairs.

Hagia Sophia became a Mosque after Sultan Mehmed allowed his troops to pillage the building for three days after invading Constantinople in 1453. He called it the Aya Sofya, and it was Istanbul’s first imperial mosque. He removed the iconostasis, alter, bells and sacrificial vessels and plastered over many of the mosaics.

Renovation of crumbling plaster in 1717 was indirectly responsible for saving many mosaics. Instead of destroying them, Mosque workers sold mosaic stones to visitors as talismans.

The building continued as a mosque until the secular Republic of Turkey converted it into a museum in 1935. It remains open to the public, and some call it the eighth wonder of the world.

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