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Hagia Sophia: Definition, History & Architecture

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous buildings in world history, having served as a church, a mosque, and as a museum. That is to say nothing of its architectural design, which you can learn more about in this lesson.

A Church to Holy Wisdom

The Hagia Sophia, located in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), Turkey, is perhaps the most enduring building of late antiquity. The name, which translates from Greek as 'Holy Wisdom,' seeks to honor Jesus. While the building has long since ceased to serve as a church, the indelible mark of its patron, Emperor Justinian of the Byzantine Empire, and its early days as one of the most important seats of Christian worship, have not been erased by more than 500 years as a mosque and then as a museum.

History of the Hagia Sophia

The building we call the Hagia Sophia was actually the third building of this name at the site; the other two had been previously destroyed. In 532, following the Nika Revolt, Emperor Justinian sought to rebuild the structure. In doing so, he sought the expertise of Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, two prominent builders within Byzantine society. Taking five years to complete, Justinian was pleased with his work, proclaiming upon his initial entry into the building, 'Solomon, I have surpassed you!'

Despite its original grandeur, the fate of the Hagia Sophia was to match that of the Byzantine Empire for much of the next 900 years. In 1054, the church saw a major blow to the Empire's influence abroad as the site of the Great Schism, when Papal representatives excommunicated the Byzantine Patriarch. This caused a split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy that continues today. This was soon followed thereafter by the arrival of numerous waves of Crusaders, whom in the Fourth Crusade were as happy to plunder Constantinople as other Crusaders had been to press their attack on the Holy Land.

These attacks took a serious toll on the Empire, and by 1453 the Hagia Sophia, and Constantinople, had fallen into the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The ruler of the Ottomans, Mehmet II, ordered the church transformed into a mosque, complete with heavy carpets covering the marble of the floor, as well as Arabic calligraphy displaying the names of God, Muhammad, and selected early leaders of Islam to be hung from the dome.

Like the Byzantine Empire before it, the Ottoman Empire too fell, this time with the secular Republic of Turkey taking the place of the once thoroughly-Islamic empire. Seeking to limit connections with the previous Ottoman rulers, the first president of the new Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, reopened the Hagia Sophia as a museum in 1937, having renovated the building.

The Hagia Sophia
Exterior of Hagia Sophia

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