Hagia Sophia, officially the Hagia Sophia Mosque, is a mosque and an important cultural and historical site in Istanbul, Turkey. It was completed in 537 AD as the last of three successive church buildings constructed on the site by the Eastern Roman Empire. The site was an Eastern Orthodox church from 360 AD until 1204, when it was converted to a Catholic church after the Fourth Crusade, reclaimed in 1261, and remained Eastern Orthodox until the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It served as a mosque until 1935, when it became a museum. In 2020 the site became a mosque again.
The current structure was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537 as the Christian cathedral of Constantinople for the Byzantine Empire, designed by the Greek geometers Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. It was formally called the Church of the Holy Wisdom and, upon completion, became the largest interior space in the world and one of the first to use a fully pendentive dome. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture.” The current Justinian building was the third church of the same name to occupy the site, the previous one having been destroyed in the Nika riots.
As the episcopal see of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, it remained the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years, until the completion of Seville Cathedral in 1520. Beginning with subsequent Byzantine architecture, Hagia Sophia became the paradigmatic Orthodox church form, and its architectural style was emulated by Ottoman mosques a thousand years later. It has been described as “occupying a unique position in the Christian world” and as an architectural and cultural icon of Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox civilisation.
The religious and spiritual centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly four hundred years, the church was dedicated to Holy Wisdom. It was here that the excommunication of Patriarch Michael I Cerularius was officially announced by Humbert of Silva Candida, the envoy of Pope Leo IX, in 1054, an act considered to be the beginning of the East-West Schism. In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, it was converted back into a Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire, before being returned to the Eastern Orthodox Church with the restoration of the Byzantine Empire in 1261. Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who led the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, was buried in the church.
After the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, it was converted into a mosque by Mehmed the Conqueror and became the main mosque of Istanbul until the construction of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in 1616. During its conversion, the bells, altar, iconostasis, ambo and baptistery were removed, while iconography such as mosaic depictions of Jesus, Mary, Christian saints and angels were removed or plastered over.
Islamic architectural additions included four minarets, a minbar and a mihrab. The Byzantine architecture of Hagia Sophia served as inspiration for many other religious buildings, including Hagia Sophia in Thessaloniki, Panagia Ekatontapiliani, Şehzade Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque, Rüstem Pasha Mosque and the Kılıç Ali Pasha Complex. The Patriarchate moved to the Church of the Holy Apostles, which became the city’s cathedral.
The complex remained a mosque until 1931, when it was closed to the public for four years. It was reopened as a museum in 1935 under the secular Republic of Turkey, and the building became Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction in 2019 In July 2020, the Council of State annulled the 1934 decision to establish the museum, and Hagia Sophia was reclassified as a mosque.
The 1934 decree was deemed illegal under both Ottoman and Turkish law, as the Waqf of Hagia Sophia, endowed by Sultan Mehmed, had designated the site as a mosque; supporters of the decision argued that Hagia Sophia was the personal property of the Sultan. The decision to designate Hagia Sophia as a mosque was highly controversial and drew condemnation from the Turkish opposition, UNESCO, the World Council of Churches and the International Association of Byzantine Studies, as well as numerous international leaders.
Hagia Sophia History
Church of Constantius II
The first church on the site was known as the Magna Ecclesia because of its size compared to the size of contemporary churches in the city. According to the Chronicon Paschale, the church was consecrated on 15 February 360, during the reign of Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361), by the Arian bishop Eudoxius of Antioch. According to the 5th-century church historian Socrates of Constantinople, the emperor Constantius had the Great Church built around 346 “next to the church called Irene, which, being too small, the emperor’s father had enlarged and embellished.”
A tradition no older than the 7th or 8th century states that the building was constructed by Constantius’ father, Constantine the Great (r. 306-337). Hesychius of Miletus wrote that Constantine built Hagia Sophia with a wooden roof and removed 427 (mostly pagan) statues from the site. The 12th-century chronicler Joannes Zonaras reconciles the two views, writing that Constantius repaired the building, consecrated by Eusebius of Nicomedia, after it had collapsed. Since Eusebius was bishop of Constantinople from 339 to 341, and Constantine died in 337, it seems that the first church was built by Constantius.
The nearby church of Hagia Irene (“Holy Peace”) was completed earlier and served as the cathedral until the Great Church was completed. Apart from Hagia Irene, there is no record of major churches in the city centre before the late 4th century. Rowland Mainstone argues that the 4th-century church was not yet known as Hagia Sophia. Although its name as the “Great Church” implies that it was larger than other Constantinopolitan churches, the only other major churches of the 4th century were the Church of St Mocius, which lay outside the Constantinian walls and may have been attached to a cemetery, and the Church of the Holy Apostles.
The church itself is known to have had a wooden roof, curtains, columns and a west-facing entrance, it probably had a narthex and is described as having the shape of a Roman circus, which may mean it had a U-shaped plan like the basilicas of San Marcellino e Pietro and Sant’Agnese fuori le mura in Rome. However, it may also have been a more conventional basilica with three, four or five naves, perhaps resembling the original Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The building was probably preceded by an atrium, as in the later churches on the site.
According to Ken Dark and Jan Kostenec, another remnant of the 4th-century basilica may exist in a wall of alternating brick and stone banded masonry immediately to the west of the Justinian church, the upper part of which is constructed of bricks with 5th-century brick stamps, but the lower part of which is constructed of bricks typical of the 4th century.
The building was accompanied by a baptistery and a skeuophylakion. A hypogeum, perhaps with a martyrium above, was discovered before 1946, and the remains of a brick wall with traces of a marble facing were identified in 2004. The skeuophylakion is said by Palladius to have had a circular floor plan, and since some U-shaped basilicas in Rome were funerary churches with an attached circular mausoleum (the Mausoleum of Constantine and the Mausoleum of Helena), it is possible that it originally had a funerary function, although by 405 its use had changed. A later account credits a woman called Anna with donating the land on which the church was built in exchange for the right to be buried there.
Excavations on the western side of the site of the first church, under the wall of the Propylaeum, show that the first church was built on a street about 8 m (26 ft) wide According to early accounts, the first Hagia Sophia was built on the site of an ancient pagan temple, although there are no artefacts to confirm this.
The Patriarch of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, came into conflict with the Empress Aelia Eudoxia, wife of the Emperor Arcadius (r. 383-408), and was sent into exile on 20 June 404. During the subsequent riots, this first church was largely burnt down. Palladius noted that the 4th-century skeuophylakion survived the fire. According to Dark and Kostenec, the fire may have affected only the main basilica, leaving the surrounding outbuildings intact.
Church of Theodosius II
A second church on the site was ordered by Theodosius II (r. 402-450), who consecrated it on 10 October 415 The Notitia Urbis Constantinopolitanae, a fifth-century list of monuments, refers to Hagia Sophia as Magna Ecclesia, ‘Great Church’, while the former cathedral Hagia Irene is referred to as Ecclesia Antiqua, ‘Old Church’.
By the time of Socrates of Constantinople, around 440, “both churches enclosed by a single wall and served by the same clergy.” Thus the complex would have encompassed a large area, including the future site of the Hospital of Samson. If the fire of 404 destroyed only the 4th-century main basilica church, then the 5th-century Theodosian basilica could have been built, surrounded by a complex built primarily in the 4th century.
During the reign of Theodosius II, the emperor’s elder sister, Augusta Pulcheria (reigned 414-453), was challenged by the Patriarch Nestorius (reigned 10 April 428 – 22 June 431), who denied Augusta access to the sanctuary of the “Great Church”, probably on 15 April 428. According to the anonymous letter to Cosmas, the Virgin Empress, a promoter of the cult of the Virgin Mary who habitually partook of the Eucharist in the sanctuary of Nestorius’ predecessors, claimed the right of entry because of her equal position to the Theotokos – the Virgin Mary – “who gave birth to God”.
Their theological differences were part of the controversy over the title Theotokos, which led to the Council of Ephesus and the stimulation of Monophysitism and Nestorianism, a doctrine which, like Nestorius, rejected the use of the title. Pulcheria, along with Pope Celestine I and Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, had Nestorius overthrown, condemned at the Ecumenical Council, and exiled.
In the area of the western entrance to Justinian’s Hagia Sophia, the western remains of its Theodosian predecessor were found, as well as some fragments of the Constantinian church. The German archaeologist Alfons Maria Schneider began archaeological excavations in the mid-1930s and published his final report in 1941. Excavations in what was once the 6th-century atrium of the Justinian church revealed the monumental western entrance and atrium, as well as columns and sculptural fragments from the 4th and 5th-century churches. Further excavation was abandoned for fear of damaging the structural integrity of the Justinian building, but parts of the excavation trenches remain uncovered, revealing the foundations of the Theodosian building.
The basilica was built by the architect Rufinus. The main entrance to the church, which may have had gilded doors, faced west, and there was an additional entrance to the east. There was a central pulpit and probably an upper gallery, possibly used as a matroneum (women’s section). The exterior was decorated with elaborate carvings of rich Theodosian-era designs, fragments of which survive, while the floor just inside the portico was decorated with polychrome mosaics. [Fragments of a frieze of reliefs with 12 lambs representing the 12 apostles also survive; unlike Justinian’s 6th-century church, the Theodosian Hagia Sophia had both colourful floor mosaics and external decorative sculpture.
The Theodosian building had a monumental propylaeum hall with a portico that may account for this vaulting, which was thought by the original excavators in the 1930s to be part of the western entrance to the church itself. The propylaeum opened onto an atrium that lay in front of the basilica church itself. The propylaeum was preceded by a steep monumental staircase that followed the contours of the ground as it sloped westwards towards the strategion, the basilica and the harbours of the Golden Horn. This arrangement would have been similar to the steps outside the atrium of the Constantinian Old St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Near the staircase was a cistern, perhaps to supply a fountain in the atrium or for worshippers to wash before entering.
The 4th-century skeuophylakion was replaced in the 5th century by the present structure, a rotunda of banded masonry on the lower two levels and plain brickwork on the third. Originally this rotunda, probably used as a treasury for liturgical objects, had an internal gallery on the second floor, accessed by an external spiral staircase, and two levels of niches for storage.
The gallery was supported by monumental consoles with carved acanthus motifs, similar to those on the late 5th-century Column of Leo. A large lintel of the western entrance to the skeuophylakion – walled up during the Ottoman period – was discovered inside the rotunda during archaeological excavations in 1979, at which time the masonry was also repointed. The skeuophylakion was restored again by the Vakıflar in 2014.
The second Hagia Sophia was burnt down on 13-14 January 532, when a fire broke out in the nearby Hippodrome during the riots of the Nika revolt. The court historian Procopius wrote;
And in order to show that they [the insurgents] had taken up arms not only against the Emperor, but no less against God Himself, unholy wretches that they were, they had the audacity to burn the Church of the Christians, which the people of Byzantium call “Sophia”, an epithet which they have most appropriately invented for God, by which they call His temple; and God permitted them to accomplish this impiety, foreseeing what an object of beauty that shrine was destined to be transformed into. Thus the whole Church was at that time a charred mass of ruins.
Procopius, De aedificiis, I.1.21-22
Church of Justinian I (current structure)
On 23 February 532, only a few weeks after the destruction of the second basilica, Emperor Justinian I inaugurated the construction of a third and very different basilica, larger and more majestic than its predecessors. Justinian appointed two architects, the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and the geometer and engineer Isidore of Miletus, to design the building.
Construction of the church began in 532 during the short tenure of Phocas as praetorian prefect. Although Phocas had been arrested in 529 as a suspected practitioner of paganism, he replaced John the Cappadocian after the Nika riots saw the destruction of the Theodosian church. According to John the Lydian, Phocas was responsible for financing the initial construction of the building with 4,000 Roman pounds of gold, but he was dismissed from office in October 532. John the Lydian wrote that Phocas had obtained the funds by moral means, but Evagrius Scholasticus later wrote that the money had been obtained unjustly.
According to Anthony Kaldellis, the two architects of Hagia Sophia named by Procopius were associated with the school of the pagan philosopher Ammonius of Alexandria, and it is possible that both they and John the Lydian saw Hagia Sophia as a great temple to the supreme Neoplatonist deity manifested through light and the sun. John the Lydian describes the church as the “Temenos of the Great God”.
Originally, the exterior of the church was covered with marble veneer, as evidenced by remaining pieces of marble and surviving attachments for lost panels on the west side of the building. The white marble cladding of much of the church, together with the gilding of some parts, would have given Hagia Sophia a shimmering appearance quite different from the brick and plaster of modern times, and would have greatly increased its visibility from the sea The interior surfaces of the cathedral were covered with polychrome marbles, green and white with purple porphyry, and gold mosaics. The exterior was covered with stucco, which was tinted yellow and red during the 19th-century restorations by the Fossati architects.
The construction is described by Procopius in On Buildings Columns and other marble elements were imported from throughout the Mediterranean, although the columns were once thought to be spoils from cities such as Rome and Ephesus. Although they were made specifically for Hagia Sophia, they vary in size. More than ten thousand people were employed during the construction process. The new church was recognised at the time as a major work of architecture.
Outside the church was an elaborate series of monuments around the bronze column of Justinian, topped by an equestrian statue of the emperor, which dominated the Augustaeum, the open square in front of the church that connected it to the Great Palace complex through the Chalcis Gate. At the edge of the Augustaeum were the Milion and the Regia, the first section of Constantinople’s main thoroughfare, the Mese. Also facing the Augustaeum were the huge Constantinian Baths, the Baths of Zeuxippus, and the Justinian Civic Basilica, under which was the huge cistern known as the Basilica Cistern. On the opposite side of Hagia Sophia was the former cathedral, Hagia Irene.
Referring to the destruction of the Theodosian Hagia Sophia and comparing the new church with the old, Procopius praised the Justinianic building in his De aedificiis:
… the Emperor Justinian built not long afterwards a church so finely shaped, that if anyone had enquired of the Christians before the burning if it would be their wish that the church should be destroyed and one like this should take its place, shewing them some sort of model of the building we now see, it seems to me that they would have prayed that they might see their church destroyed forthwith, in order that the building might be converted into its present form.
Procopius, De aedificiis, I.1.22–23
On seeing the finished building, the emperor is said to have said: “Salomon, I have surpassed you”.
Justinian and Patriarch Menas inaugurated the new basilica with great pomp on 27 December 537, 5 years and 10 months after construction began, Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a major venue for Byzantine imperial ceremonies such as coronations. The basilica provided refuge from persecution for criminals, although there is disagreement as to whether Justinian intended for murderers to be granted asylum.
Earthquakes in August 553 and 14 December 557 caused cracks in the main dome and eastern semi-dome. According to the Chronicle of John Malalas, in a subsequent earthquake on 7 May 558, the eastern semi-dome collapsed, destroying the ambon, altar and ciborium. The collapse was mainly due to the excessive bearing load and the enormous shear load of the dome, which was too flat, causing deformation of the pillars supporting the dome. He entrusted it to Isidore the Younger, nephew of Isidore of Miletus, who used lighter materials.
The entire vault had to be taken down and rebuilt 20 Byzantine feet (6.25 m or 20.5 ft) higher than before, giving the building its present internal height of 55.6 m (182 ft). Isidorus also changed the type of dome, building a ribbed dome with pendentives whose diameter was between 32. 7 and 33.5 m. On the orders of Justinian, eight Corinthian columns from Baalbek, Lebanon, were dismantled and shipped to Constantinople around 560, and this reconstruction, which gave the church its present 6th-century form, was completed in 562.
The poet Paul the Silent composed an ekphrasis, or long visual poem, for the rededication of the basilica, presided over by Patriarch Eutychius on 24 December 562. Paul the Silent’s poem is conventionally known under the Latin title Descriptio Sanctae Sophiae, and he was also the author of another ekphrasis on the ambon of the church, the Descripto Ambonis.
According to the history of the Patriarch Nicephorus I and the chronicler Theophanes the Confessor, after the Sasanian Empire took Alexandria and Roman Egypt during the Byzantine-Sasanian War of 602-628, various liturgical vessels of the cathedral were melted down by order of the Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641), and were made into gold and silver coins and paid as tribute to the Avars.
The Avars attacked the outskirts of Constantinople in 623, prompting the Byzantines to move the “garment” relic of Mary, the mother of Jesus, from its usual shrine in the Church of the Theotokos at Blachernae, just outside the Theodosian Walls, to Hagia Sophia. On 14 May 626, the Scholae Palatinae, an elite body of soldiers, protested in Hagia Sophia against a planned increase in bread prices after the Cura Annonae rations had been suspended due to the loss of grain supplies from Egypt.
The Persians under Shahrbaraz and the Avars together besieged Constantinople in 626; according to the Chronicon Paschale, Theodore Syncellus, a deacon and presbyter of Hagia Sophia, was among those who negotiated unsuccessfully with the Avar Khagan on 2 August 626. A sermon attributed by surviving manuscripts to Theodore Syncellus, possibly delivered on the anniversary of the event, describes the translation of the Virgin’s garment and its ceremonial re-translation to Blachernae by the Patriarch Sergius I after the threat had passed.
Another eyewitness account of the Avar-Persian siege was written by George of Pisidia, a deacon of Hagia Sophia and an administrative official for the Patriarchate of Antioch in Pisidia. Both George and Theodore, probably members of Sergius’s literary circle, attribute the defeat of the Avars to the intervention of the Theotokos, a belief that strengthened in the following centuries.
In 726, Emperor Leo the Isaurian issued a series of edicts against the worship of images and ordered the army to destroy all icons, ushering in the period of Byzantine iconoclasm. At that time, all religious images and statues were removed from the Hagia Sophia. After a brief hiatus during the reign of Empress Irene (797-802), the iconoclasts returned. Emperor Theophilus (r. 829-842) had two-winged bronze doors with his monogram installed at the southern entrance to the church.
The basilica was damaged, first by a great fire in 859, and again by an earthquake on 8 January 869, which caused the collapse of one of the half domes. Emperor Basil I ordered the tympanums, arches and vaults to be repaired.
In his book De caerimoniis aulae Byzantinae (“Book of Ceremonies”), Emperor Constantine VII (r. 913-959) wrote a detailed account of the ceremonies held at Hagia Sophia by the emperor and the patriarch.
In the early 10th century, the pagan ruler of Kievan Rus’ sent emissaries to his neighbours to learn about Judaism, Islam, and Roman and Orthodox Christianity. After visiting Hagia Sophia, his envoys reported back: “We were led to a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth”.
In the 940s or 950s, probably around 954 or 955, after the Rus’-Byzantine War of 941 and the death of the Grand Duke of Kiev, Igor I (r. 912-945), his widow Olga of Kiev – regent for her young son Sviatoslav I (r. 945-972) – visited Emperor Constantine VII and was received as Queen of the Rus’ in Constantinople. She was probably baptised in the baptistery of Hagia Sophia, took the name of the reigning Augusta, Helena Lecapena, and received the titles of zōstē patrikía and the styles of archontissa and hegemon of the Rus’.
Her baptism was an important step in the Christianisation of the Kievan Rus’, although the emperor’s treatment of her visit in De caerimoniis does not mention the baptism Olga is considered a saint and equal to the apostles in the Eastern Orthodox Church. According to an early 14th-century source, the second church in Kiev, St Sophia’s, was founded in anno mundi 6460 in the Byzantine calendar, or around 952. The name of this future Kiev cathedral probably commemorates Olga’s baptism in Hagia Sophia.
After the great earthquake of 25 October 989, which caused the collapse of the western dome arch, Emperor Basil II asked the Armenian architect Trdat, creator of the Cathedral of Ani, to oversee the repairs. He rebuilt and reinforced the fallen dome arch and rebuilt the western side of the dome with 15 dome ribs.
The extent of the damage required six years of repair and reconstruction; the church was reopened on 13 May 994. At the end of the reconstruction, the church’s decorations were renovated, including the addition of four huge paintings of cherubs, a new depiction of Christ on the dome, a burial cloth of Christ shown on Fridays, and on the apse a new depiction of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus between the apostles Peter and Paul. The great side arches were painted with the prophets and teachers of the church.
According to the 13th-century Greek historian Niketas Choniates, the Emperor John II Comnenus celebrated a revived Roman triumph after his victory over the Danishmendids at the siege of Kastamon in 1133: After walking through the streets carrying a cross and a silver quadriga with an icon of the Virgin Mary, the emperor attended a ceremony at the cathedral before entering the imperial palace. In 1168, Emperor Manuel I Comnenus held another triumphal procession, again carrying a gilded silver quadriga with the icon of the Virgin from the now demolished East Gate in the Propontis Wall, to Hagia Sophia for a thanksgiving service, and then to the imperial palace.
In 1181, the daughter of Emperor Manuel I, Maria Comnena, and her husband, the Caesar Renier of Montferrat, fled to Hagia Sophia at the height of their dispute with the Empress Maria of Antioch, regent for her son, Emperor Alexius II Comnenus. Maria Comnena and Renier, with the support of the Patriarch, occupied the cathedral, refusing the imperial administration’s demands for a peaceful departure.
According to Niketas Choniates, they “turned the sacred courtyard into a military camp”, garrisoned the entrances to the complex with locals and mercenaries, and, despite the strong opposition of the Patriarch, “turned the house of prayer into a den of thieves or a well-fortified and precipitous fortress, impregnable to attack”, while “all the dwellings adjacent to Hagia Sophia and adjoining the Augusteion were demolished by [Maria’s] men”.
A battle ensued in the Augustaion and around the Milion, with the defenders fighting from the “gallery of the Catechumeneia (also called the Makron)” facing the Augustaion, from which they eventually withdrew and took up positions in the exonarthex of Hagia Sophia itself. At this point, “the Patriarch was afraid that the enemy troops might enter the temple, trample the sacred floor with unholy feet, and plunder the sacred sacrifices with hands defiled and still warm with blood.” After a successful sally by Renier and his knights, Maria asked for a truce, the imperial attack ceased, and an amnesty was negotiated by the megas doux Andronikos Kontostephanos and the megas hetaireiarches John Doukas.
The Greek historian Niketas Choniates compared the preservation of the cathedral to the efforts of the 1st-century emperor Titus to prevent the destruction of the Second Temple during the siege of Jerusalem in the First Jewish-Roman War. Choniates reports that, in 1182, a white falcon wearing jesses was seen flying from the east to Hagia Sophia, flying three times from “the building of the Thōmaitēs” (a basilica built on the south-eastern side of the Augustaion) to the Palace of the Kathisma in the Great Palace, where new emperors were acclaimed, presaging the end of the reign of Andronicus I Comnenus (r. 1183-1185).
Choniates further writes that in 1203, during the Fourth Crusade, the emperors Isaac II Angelus and Alexius IV Angelus stripped Hagia Sophia of all gold ornaments and silver oil lamps in order to pay off the crusaders who had deposed Alexius III Angelus and helped Isaac return to the throne.
During the subsequent sack of Constantinople in 1204, the church was further looted and desecrated by the Crusaders, as described by Choniates, although he did not witness the events in person. According to his account, written at the court of the rump empire of Nicaea, Hagia Sophia was stripped of its remaining metal ornaments, its altar was smashed to pieces, and a “woman laden with sins” sang and danced on the synthronon.
He adds that mules and donkeys were brought into the sanctuary of the cathedral to carry away the gilded silver plating of the bema, ambo, doors and other furnishings, and that one of them slipped on the marble floor and was accidentally disembowelled, further contaminating the place. According to Ali ibn al-Athir, whose account of the sack of Constantinople was probably based on a Christian source, the Crusaders massacred some clerics who surrendered to them. Much of the interior was damaged and would not be repaired until it was returned to Orthodox control in 1261. The sack of Hagia Sophia, and Constantinople in general, remained a sore point in Catholic-Eastern Orthodox relations.
During the Latin occupation of Constantinople (1204-1261), the church became a Latin Catholic cathedral. Baldwin I of Constantinople (r. 1204-1205) was crowned emperor at Hagia Sophia on 16 May 1204 in a ceremony that closely followed Byzantine practice. Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who commanded the sack and invasion of the city by the Latin Crusaders in 1204, is buried in the church, probably in the upper eastern gallery. In the 19th century, an Italian restoration team placed a cenotaph marker, often mistaken for a medieval artefact, near the probable site, which is still visible today. The original tomb was destroyed by the Ottomans when the church was converted into a mosque.
After the capture of Constantinople in 1261 by the Empire of Nicaea and Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus (r. 1261-1282), the church was in a dilapidated state. In 1317, Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus (r. 1282-1328) ordered four new buttresses to be built in the eastern and northern parts of the church, financed by the inheritance of his late wife, Irene of Montferrat (d. 1314). After the earthquake of October 1344, new cracks appeared in the dome and several parts of the building collapsed on 19 May 1346. Repairs began in 1354 by the architects Astras and Peralta.
On 12 December 1452, Isidore of Kiev proclaimed in Hagia Sophia the long-awaited ecclesiastical union between the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, as decided at the Council of Florence and decreed by the papal bull Laetentur Caeli, although it was to be short-lived.
The union was unpopular with the Byzantines, who had already expelled the Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory III, for his pro-union stance. A new Patriarch was not installed until after the Ottoman conquest. According to the Greek historian Doukas, the Hagia Sophia was tainted by these Catholic associations, and the anti-union Orthodox faithful avoided the cathedral, considering it a haunt of demons and a “Hellenic” temple of Roman paganism.
Doukas also notes that after the proclamation of the Laetentur Caeli, the Byzantines dispersed in discontent to nearby venues, where they drank toasts to the icon of Hodegetria, who, according to late Byzantine tradition, had interceded to save them during the earlier sieges of Constantinople by the Avar Khaganate and the Umayyad Caliphate.
According to Nestor Iskander’s History of the Conquest of Tsargrad, on 21 May 1453, in the final days of the siege of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was the focus of an alarming omen, interpreted as the Holy Spirit abandoning Constantinople. The sky lit up, illuminating the city, and “many people gathered and saw on the Church of Wisdom, at the top of the window, a great flame of fire coming out. It surrounded the whole neck of the church for a long time. The flame became one; its flame changed and there was an indescribable light. At once it went up to heaven. …
The light itself went up to heaven; the gates of heaven were opened; the light was received; and they were closed again.” This phenomenon may have been St Elmo’s fire, caused by gunpowder smoke and unusual weather. The author reports that the fall of the city to “Mohammedanism” was foretold in an omen seen by Constantine the Great – an eagle fighting a serpent – which also meant that “in the end Christianity will overcome Mohammedanism, receive the Seven Hills and be enthroned in them”.
The eventual fall of Constantinople had long been predicted in apocalyptic literature: a reference to the destruction of a city built on seven hills in the Book of Revelation was often understood to refer to Constantinople, and the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius had predicted an “Ishmaelite” conquest of the Roman Empire.
The Muslim armies reach the Forum Bovis before being turned back by divine intervention; in later apocalyptic texts, the climactic turn takes place at the Column of Theodosius, which is closer to Hagia Sophia; in others, it takes place at the Column of Constantine, which is even closer. Hagia Sophia is mentioned in a hagiography of uncertain date, detailing the life of the Eastern Orthodox saint Andrew the Fool.
The text is attributed to Nicephorus, a priest of Hagia Sophia, and contains a description of the end times in the form of a dialogue in which the interlocutor, After being told by the saint that Constantinople will be submerged in a flood and that “the waters, as they pour forth, will irresistibly overwhelm and cover it, abandoning it to the terrible and immense sea of the abyss”, the interlocutor says: “Some people say that the great Church of God will not be submerged with the city, but will be suspended in the air by an invisible power”.
The answer is given: “If the whole city sinks into the sea, how can the Great Church remain? Who will need it? Do you think that God dwells in temples made with hands?” The Column of Constantine, however, is prophesied to endure.
From the time of Procopius in the reign of Justinian, the equestrian imperial statue on the column of Justinian in the Augustaion beside Hagia Sophia, gesturing with his right hand towards Asia, was understood to represent the emperor holding back the threat to the Romans from the Sassanid Empire in the Roman-Persian wars, while the orb or globus cruciger held in the statue’s left hand was an expression of the global power of the Roman emperor. Later, in the Arab-Byzantine Wars, the threat held back by the statue became the Umayyad Caliphate, and later the statue was thought to be holding back the advance of the Turks.
The emperor’s identity was often confused with that of other famous saint emperors such as Theodosius the Great and Heraclius. The orb was often referred to as an apple in foreign accounts of the city, and was interpreted in Greek folklore as a symbol of the Turks’ mythological homeland in Central Asia, the “Lone Apple Tree”. The orb fell to the ground in 1316 and was replaced in 1325, but while it was still in place in 1412, by the time Johann Schiltberger saw the statue in 1427, the “Reichsapfel” had fallen to the ground. An attempt to raise it again in 1435 failed, reinforcing the prophecies of the city’s demise.
For the Turks, the “red apple” came to symbolise Constantinople itself, and later the military supremacy of the Islamic caliphate over the Christian empire. In Niccolò Barbaro’s account of the fall of the city in 1453, the Justinian monument was interpreted in the last days of the siege as representing the city’s founder, Constantine the Great, and indicating “this is the way my conqueror will come”.
According to Laonicus Chalcocondyles, Hagia Sophia served as a refuge for the population during the capture of the city. Despite its bad reputation and empty state after December 1452, Doukas writes that after the Theodosian walls were breached, the Byzantines took refuge there as the Turks advanced through the city: “All the women and men, monks and nuns, ran to the Great Church. They, both men and women, held their children in their arms. What a spectacle! The street was crowded, full of people.” He attributes their change of heart to a prophecy.
What was the reason that compelled all to flee to the Great Church? They had been listening, for many years, to some pseudo-soothsayers, who had declared that the city was destined to be handed over to the Turks, who would enter in large numbers and would massacre the Romans as far as the Column of Constantine the Great. After this an angel would descend, holding his sword. He would hand over the kingdom, together with the sword, to some insignificant, poor, and humble man who would happen to be standing by the Column.
He would say to him: “Take this sword and avenge the Lord’s people.” Then the Turks would be turned back, would be massacred by the pursuing Romans, and would be ejected from the city and from all places in the west and the east and would be driven as far as the borders of Persia, to a place called the Lone Tree …. That was the cause for the flight into the Great Church. In one hour that famous and enormous church was filled with men and women. An innumerable crowd was everywhere: upstairs, downstairs, in the courtyards, and in every conceivable place. They closed the gates and stood there, hoping for salvation.
In keeping with the traditional custom of the time, Sultan Mehmed II allowed his troops and entourage to loot and pillage the city for three full days shortly after its capture. During this period, many Orthodox churches were destroyed; Hagia Sophia itself was looted, as the invaders believed it to contain the city’s greatest treasures.
Shortly after the defences of the walls of Constantinople collapsed and the victorious Ottoman troops entered the city, the looters and pillagers made their way to Hagia Sophia and broke down its doors before storming inside. At the end of the three days, Mehmed was to claim what was left of the city, but at the end of the first day, he announced that the looting should stop, as he felt deep sadness as he toured the looted and enslaved city.
Throughout the siege of Constantinople, the besieged people of the city attended Divine Liturgy and Prayer of the Hours in Hagia Sophia, and the church was a safe haven and refuge for many of those who were unable to contribute to the defence of the city, including women, children, the elderly, the sick and the wounded.
As they were trapped in the church, the many parishioners and other refugees inside became spoils of war to be divided among the triumphant invaders. The building was desecrated and looted, and those who took refuge in the church were enslaved. While most of the elderly, infirm, wounded and sick were killed, the rest (mainly teenage men and boys) were chained and sold into slavery.
Hagia Sophia Mosque (1453–1935)
Constantinople fell to the invading Ottoman forces on 29 May 1453. Sultan Mehmed II entered the city and performed the Friday prayer and khutbah (sermon) in Hagia Sophia, and this action marked the official conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
The priests and religious staff of the church continued to perform Christian rites, prayers and ceremonies until they were forced to stop by the invaders. When Mehmed and his entourage entered the church, he ordered that it be immediately converted into a mosque. One of the ʿulamāʾ (Islamic scholars) present climbed onto the church’s ambo and recited the shahada (“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger”), marking the beginning of the church’s conversion to a mosque. Mehmed is said to have swung his sword at a soldier who tried to break up one of the slabs of the Proconsul’s marble floor.
As described by Western visitors before 1453, such as the Cordoban nobleman Pero Tafur and the Florentine geographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti, the church was in a dilapidated state, with several of its doors falling off their hinges. Fatih Sultan Mehmed ordered the building to be renovated.
Mehmed attended the first Friday prayer in the mosque on 1 June 1453. Aya Sofya became the first imperial mosque in Istanbul. Most of the existing houses in the city and the area of the future Topkapi Palace were donated to the corresponding waqf. From 1478, 2,360 shops, 1,300 houses, 4 caravanserais, 30 boza shops and 23 sheep head and trotter shops donated their income to the foundation, and the imperial charters of 1520 (AH 926) and 1547 (AH 954) added shops and parts of the Grand Bazaar and other markets to the foundation.
Before 1481, a small minaret was built on the southwest corner of the building, above the stair tower, and Mehmed’s successor Bayezid II (r. 1481-1512) later built another minaret on the northeast corner. One of the minarets collapsed after the earthquake of 1509, and by the mid-16th century they were both replaced by two diagonally opposite minarets built on the east and west corners of the building. In 1498, Bernardo Bonsignori was the last Western visitor to Hagia Sophia Mosque to report seeing the old Justinian floor; shortly afterwards the floor was covered with carpet and was not seen again until the 19th century.
In the 16th century, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566) brought two colossal candlesticks from his conquest of the Kingdom of Hungary and placed them on either side of the mihrab. During Suleiman’s reign, the mosaics above the narthex and the imperial gates, depicting Jesus, Mary and various Byzantine emperors, were covered with whitewash and plaster, which was removed in 1930 under the Turkish Republic.
During the reign of Selim II (r. 1566-1574), the building began to show signs of fatigue and was extensively strengthened by the Ottoman Great Architect Sinan, who was also an earthquake engineer, by adding structural supports to the exterior.
As well as strengthening the historic Byzantine structure, Great Architect Sinan added two large minarets to the western end of the building, the original Sultan’s Lodge and the Türbe (mausoleum) of Selim II to the south-east of the building in 1576-1577 (AH 984).
The previous year, parts of the patriarchate at the southern corner of the building were demolished, the golden crescent was placed on top of the dome, and a 35 arşın (about 24 m) wide zone of respect was imposed around the building, resulting in the demolition of all houses within its perimeter. The mosque became the site of the tombs of 43 Ottoman princes, and Murad III (r. 1574-1595) imported two large Hellenistic alabaster urns from Pergamon (Bergama) and placed them on two sides of the nave.
In 1594 (AH 1004), Mimar (court architect) Davud Ağa built the mausoleum of Murad III, where the Sultan and his consort Safiye Sultan were buried, and the octagonal mausoleum of their son Mehmed III (r. 1595-1603) and his valide was built next to it in 1608 (AH 1017) by the royal architect Dalgiç Mehmet Aĝa. His son Mustafa I (r. 1617-1618, 1622-1623) converted the baptistery into his mosque.
In 1717, under the reign of Sultan Ahmed III (r. 1703-1730), the crumbling plaster of the interior was renovated, indirectly contributing to the preservation of many mosaics that would otherwise have been destroyed by mosque workers. In fact, it was common for the tesserae of the mosaics – believed to be talismans – to be sold to visitors.
Sultan Mahmud I had the building restored in 1739 and added a medrese (a Koranic school, later the library of the museum), an imaret (soup kitchen for distribution to the poor) and a library, and in 1740 he added a Şadirvan (fountain for ritual ablutions), transforming it into a külliye, or social complex. At the same time, a new sultan’s lodge and a new mihrab were built inside.
Hagia Sophia Renovation of 1847–1849
The 19th century restoration of Hagia Sophia was ordered by Sultan Abdulmejid I (r. 1823-1861) and completed between 1847 and 1849 by eight hundred workers under the supervision of the Swiss-Italian architect brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati. The brothers reinforced the dome with an iron chain, strengthened the vaults, straightened the columns and revised the decoration of the exterior and interior of the building, uncovering and cleaning the mosaics in the upper gallery, although many were recovered “to protect them from further damage”.
Eight new huge circular-framed discs or medallions were hung from the cornice, on each of the four piers and on either side of the apse and west doors. These were designed by the calligrapher Kazasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi (1801-1877) and painted with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the Rashidun (the first four caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali) and Muhammad’s two grandsons: Hasan and Husayn, the sons of Ali. The old chandeliers were replaced by new pendant ones.
In 1850, the architects Fossati built a new maqsura or caliph’s lodge with neo-Byzantine columns and an Ottoman rococo marble lattice connecting to the royal pavilion behind the mosque. The new maqsura was built at the easternmost end of the north aisle, next to the northeast pier. The existing maqsura in the apse, near the mihrab, was demolished. A new entrance for the sultan was built: the Hünkar Mahfili. The Fossati brothers also renovated the minbar and mihrab.
Outside the main building, the minarets were repaired and modified so that they were of equal height. The Fossatis built a clock house, the Muvakkithane, for the use of the muwaqqit (the mosque’s timekeeper), and a new madrasa (Islamic school) was constructed. The Kasr-ı Hümayun was also built under their supervision. When the restoration was completed, the mosque was reopened with a ceremony on 13 July 1849. An edition of lithographs from drawings made during the Fossatis’ work on the Hagia Sophia was published in London in 1852, entitled: Aya Sophia of Constantinople as Recently Restored by Order of H.M. The Sultan Abdulmedjid.