Hagia Sofia was a former Orthodox basilica that was later converted into a mosque, although today, since 1935, it is a museum of the city of Istanbul. Its history also tells us the history of the city, and its architecture borders on the impossible.

Brief history

Hagia Sophia or Haghia Sophia (which means ‘Sacred Wisdom’), was originally a mosque of the Ottoman Empire. Later, with Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, it became a Byzantine church, and was one of the largest buildings in the world in its time. But sadly, nothing has been preserved from this original 4th century church.

Constantius, son of Constantine, and Emperor Theodosius the Great, built a second church, which was burned in 532.

The current Hagia Sophia was erected between 532 and 537 by Emperor Justinian I and is a perfect example of Byzantine architecture. The dome of this church collapsed during an earthquake in 558, and it was rebuilt in 563, although it was damaged again in the following centuries.

For 900 years, Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople. In 1204 the Crusaders expelled the Patriarch from Constantinople, replacing him with a Roman Apostolic Bishop, and looted the church. Many of the stolen treasures are on display today in San Marco, Venice.

In 1453 Sultan Mehmet conquered the city and made Hagia Sophia the main mosque in Istanbul, a site that he preserved for 500 years.

In 1934 President Kemal Atatürk secularized Hagia Sophia and turned it into the Ayasofya Museum (Ayasofya Müzesi) to support its maintenance with the entrance fee.

Interior of Hagia Sophia

The plan of Hagia Sophia is that of a classical basilica, a rectangle with a central dome, with four pendentives that make the transition to the square plan. On the sides of the central dome there are two semi-domes. The gallery under the dome has 40 lighting windows.

In Byzantine times, Hagia Sophia was decorated with mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, Jesus, saints, and emperors. When it became a mosque, the mosaics were covered.

It was with the restoration of 1847 that they were discovered under the plaster, but could not be fully restored until 1931. The most famous are in the galleries on the upper floor, including the Deësis with the Christ Pantocrator.

The wooden medallions with Islamic calligraphy, suspended from the central dome, with the names of Allah and Muhammad, and the first four Caliphs, are preserved.

Curiosities of Santa Sofia

  • For almost a thousand years it was the largest church in the world, until the Seville Cathedral was built.
  • Its astonishing dome is 33 meters in diameter and 56 meters high.
  • All the mosques in Istanbul follow the architectural schemes of Hagia Sophia, which is why they are so similar.
  • In the south gallery there is a rectangular column with the imprint of a hand whose author is unknown. There are those who believe it was from the Virgin Mary.
  • It would be the largest mosque in Istanbul if it were not currently a museum, Atatürk turned it into a teaching institution to support its maintenance with the price of admission.
  • Likewise, it would be the fourth largest church in the world if it were not a museum, behind Saint Paul in London, Saint Peter in Rome and the Cathedral of Milan.

Visit Hagia Sophia with a guide

Learn about all the details of the ancient Basilica of Santa Sofia and marvel at its architecture and the beauty of the complex with its four minarets. An expert guide will explain all the important details, you will not queue, and you will have the opportunity to see some incredible panoramic views of the Blue Mosque, a place that you will also visit on this guided tour.

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