Hagia Sophia is a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica (church), later an imperial mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture.”
It remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.
The current building was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and was the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site, the previous two having both been destroyed by rioters.
The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, his Mother Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over.
Islamic features such as the mihrab, minbar, and four minarets were added. It remained a mosque until 1931 when it was closed to the public for four years.
Inaugurated on 15 February 360 by the Arian bishop Eudoxius of Antioch, it was built next to the area where the imperial palace was being developed. The nearby Hagia Eirene (“Holy Peace”) church was completed earlier and served as cathedral until the Great Church was completed.
Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, such as coronations. Like other churches throughout Christendom, the basilica offered sanctuary from persecution to outlaws.
In 726, the emperor Leo the Isaurian issued a series of edicts against the veneration of images, ordering the army to destroy all icons ushering in the period of Byzantine iconoclasm. At that time, all religious pictures and statues were removed from the Hagia Sophia.
After a brief reprieve under Empress Irene (797–802), the iconoclasts made a comeback. Emperor Theophilus (829–842) was strongly influenced by Islamic art, which forbids the representation of living beings. He had a two-winged bronze door with his monograms installed at the southern entrance of the church.
The most famous of the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics are on the upper floor, in the galleries. The South Gallery, where the great mosaics are, was used for church councils. When the Hagia Sophia was a mosque, the galleries were the place where women sat during worship services.
Today, the galleries provide visitors with a commanding view of the nave from all sides and a close-up view of some of the best Byzantine mosaics to be seen anywhere. In 1934, under Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, Hagia Sofia was secularized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum.
The prayer rugs were removed, revealing the marble beneath, but the mosaics remained largely plastered over and the building was allowed to decay for some time. Some of the calligraphic panels were moved to other mosques, but eight roundels were left and can still be seen today.
All interior surfaces are sheathed with polychrome marble, green and white with purple porphyry, and gold mosaics. On the exterior, simple stuccoed walls reveal the clarity of massed vaults and domes.