Once the largest cathedral in the world, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, the dynamic structure has stood for more than 1500 years along the banks of the Bosporus Strait. With a history that encompasses the rule of many empires, even more emperors, and has housed two religious groups, it currently is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Istanbul.
Having stood for almost 1,500 years, the building has been hailed as the 8th wonder of the world. The Byzantine cathedral boasts numerous domes with one massive dome that seems to float atop a rectangular basilica, punch windows that flood the interior with rays of light, abundant mosaics that cover nearly every surface, stone inlays, columns and pillars of marble, and extremely intricate paintings and ornamentations.
The Hagia Sophia that stands today was originally built as the cathedral for the capital city of the Roman Empire in the 6th century and was converted to a mosque in 1453 following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. The modern Turkish government secularized the Hagia Sofia and turned it into a museum in 1934. As of 2020, the future of one of the world’s most iconic monuments remains uncertain following the administrative court’s decision to invalidate the status of the Hagia Sophia as a museum. It has since been reopened for Muslim worship. Hagia Sophia has been included as part of UNESCO’s Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site.
Here are 10 things you didn’t know about Hagia Sophia.
1. THE CHURCH WAS TWICE DESTROYED BY RIOTS.
The first version of Hagia Sophia was built in Constantinople in 360 CE and dedicated by the Roman Emperor Constantius II, the son of Constantine (the founder of Constantinople). The initial wood-constructed structure burned during a series of riots in 404 CE. In 415 CE, the church was rebuilt by Emperor Theodosius II, but the Nika Revolt in 532 CE caused widespread death and destruction in the city, and resulted in the church being wiped out a second time.
2. THE CHURCH HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.
This byzantine marvel was initially called the Magna Ecclesia, translating to ‘Great Church’ because of its immense size. The second incarnation of the church was then named Hagia Sophia around 430 CE. Its Greek translation, “Holy Wisdom,” remained after the church was rebuilt a century later. After the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, it was renamed Ayasofya, and today it is the Ayasofya Müzesi.
3. THE ORIGINAL DOME WAS REPLACED AFTER AN EARTHQUAKE IN 558 CE.
with a massive diameter of 131 ft, rising 160 ft high, the grand feature of the Hagia Sophia was its large central dome designed by architects Anthemios and Isidoros. However, unlike the dome of the Pantheon, which has not faltered till date, an earthquake in 558 CE caused the Hagia Sophia’s dome to collapse. It is actually built on a fault line, making it extra vulnerable to earthquakes and natural disasters. It was soon rebuilt in 562 CE to a height of 182 feet, and the walls were now reinforced. The dome’s weight is supported by a series of smaller domes, arcades, and four large arches, known as a pendentive system.
4. ONE OF THE SEVEN ANCIENT WONDERS WAS USED IN THE CHURCH’S CONSTRUCTION.
While the Hagia Sophia was being built in Constantinople, its materials were sourced from all over Europe. The Hellenistic columns from the Temple of Artemis, large stones from quarries from Egypt, green marble transported from Thessaly, black stone from the Bosporus region, and yellowstone from Syria were few of the materials imported to bring it to its current glory.
5. BELIEVERS SAY THE ‘WEEPING COLUMN’ HAS HEALING POWERS.
Out of the 140 columns supporting the Hagia Sophia, one particularly stands out. Also commonly known as ‘the wishing column’ or ‘the sweating column’ because of its incessantly damp surface, this one column was said to have the power of curing ailments. Stories suggest that even Emperor Justinian, who suffered from severe headaches, treated himself with this column. The column is also said to grant wishes. The modern-day ritual for the wish to come true is to try and rotate your hand 360 degrees while your thumb is placed inside the copper hole.
6. THE ORIGINAL BYZANTINE MOSAICS WERE NEVER COMPLETELY DESTROYED BY THE OTTOMANS
The original altar, bells, and sacrificial vessels of the Hagia Sophia were removed during its renovation to a Mosque. Contrary to popular belief, Sultan Mehmed II ordered the numerous frescoes and mosaics of the Byzantine era be protected, so they were simply whitewashed in plaster and covered in Islamic designs and calligraphy. A Mihrab (prayer niche), Minbar (pulpit) and a fountain for ablutions as well as 4 minarets, each rising to 60 meters, were added to the exterior, along with a school, kitchen, library, mausoleums, and sultan’s abode joined the site over the Ottoman centuries.
7. HAGIA SOPHIA’S DOME ISN’T COMPLETELY ROUND
Spanning 31 meters from East to West and 32.5 meters from North to South, the dome is found to be slightly oval in shape. Its one-of-a-kind dome is at a height of 56.22 meters and the center of the dome has the calligraphic inscription of the 35th verse of Surah an-Nur.
8. THE HAGIA SOPHIA WAS DECAYING WHEN SULTAN MEHMAT ARRIVED IN 1453.
When the Ottoman forces conquered Constantinople after a 53-day siege, Sultan Mehmet’s first stop was the great Byzantine Church. But owing to the riots, the building badly deteriorated. Having endured the violent crusades of the 13th century which saw the city ransacked, the church was extremely vandalized, its treasures swept away and the precious mosaics scraped off the walls, both city and Empire were unable to maintain reparation and upkeep. Under Ottoman rule, restorations began immediately and the building went from church to mosque.
9. A 90-YEAR-OLD, BLIND VENETIAN ONCE CAPTURED HAGIA SOPHIA.
During the Fourth Crusade in 1203 CE, Doge Enrico Dandolo, the powerful chief magistrate of the Republic of Venice who was over 90 years old and blind, led the Latin Christians on a siege of Constantinople in exchange for a series of rewards and promises. The city and the church were wrecked and desecrated, and many golden mosaics were torn down and taken back to Italy, while Dandolo was buried at Hagia Sophia after his death in 1205 CE.
10. THE WHOLE STRUCTURE TOOK A SURPRISINGLY SHORT TIME TO BE COMPLETE CONSTRUCTION
While it took nearly a century to construct the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the Hagia Sophia was built in a record time of 5 years, 10 months, and 4 days- in an era where machines weren’t in play. Building such a large-scale church was said to take the work of more than 10,000 men.