Istanbul's Hagia Sophia: The History Of Its Architecture

By | May 18, 2019

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Hagia Sophia at morning twilight. Source: (

The Hagia Sophia is one of the most historically and architecturally significant buildings in all of human civilization. Originally built as a Christian basilica by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in 537 CE, the structure was then converted to a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II after the fall of Constantinople, and became a secular museum in 1935 under the administration of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

This nearly 1500-year-old building has borne witness to different civilizations, empires, and peoples, but its history is not as widely understood as that of the Colosseum, Eiffel Tower, or Big Ben, for example. This is changing as the tourism industry in Turkey matures, but, for those of us who won’t be jetting off to Istanbul anytime soon, here is a brief introduction to the history of the Hagia Sophia.

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The Mosaics of the Comnenus located on the eastern wall of the southern gallery of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Source: (

Construction and Christian Era

Located in what was once the walled center of Constantinople, the present site hosted grand churches since the construction of the first Hagia Sophia in 360 CE. At the time, the imperial palace stood across the square and the grand hippodrome, with seating for 100,000 fans, was a short walk away. This was (and remains) very valuable real estate in the center of one of the world’s greatest cities.

Following fires in 404 and 532 that destroyed the first and second Hagia Sophias, Emperor Justinian I wanted to build a new church worthy of the prominent location, and one that reflected the wealth and splendor of the Byzantine Empire and its grand capital city.