Sophia means “wisdom” in Greek while Hagia means “holy or divine”. So, Hagia Sophia means “holy wisdom”. However, the church’s full name in Greek is Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, Naos tēs Hagias tou Theou Sophias, whose translation to English is “Shrine of the Holy of God”.
2- Hagia Sophia is the third church to have been built on the same site. The first church was known as the Μεγάλη Ἐκκλησία, Megálē Ekklēsíā, meaning “Great Church”, and after this church was burned in 404 the second church was ordered by Theodosius II. However, this church also shared the same fate; it was burned to the ground due to Nika Revolt against Emperor Justinian I. In the wake of the revolt, on the same site, the Hagia Sophia was built under the direction of Emperor Justinian I between 532 and 537.
3- While it took nearly a century to construct the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the Hagia Sophia was built in record time; 5 years, 10 months and 4 days. Building such a church was said to take the work of more than 10,000 men.
4- Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles were the architectures that Emperor Justinian I commissioned to design the Hagia Sophia. Isidore of Miletus was known as physicist and mathematician who taught at the universities of Alexandria and then Constantinople before he was hired to design the Hagia Sophia. Anthemius of Tralles was renowned mathematician and geometrician.
5- While the Hagia Sophia was being constructed, the materials used to construct the church were sourced from all over the Byzantine Empire. For instance, the columns were from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, large stones from Egypt, black stone from the Bosphorus, yellow stone from Syria, and green marble from Thessaly.
6- On Saturday, July 16, 1054, as afternoon prayers were about to begin, Cardinal Humbert, legate of Pope Leo IX, strode into the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, right up to the main altar, and placed on it a parchment that declared the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, to be excommunicated. He then marched out of the church, shook its dust from his feet, and left the city. A week later the patriarch solemnly condemned the cardinal. This event opened a new page in the history of Christianity as the Great Schism between Catholics and Orthodox began.
7- Despite the opposition of wealthy Greeks as well as the peoples of Italian provinces, iconoclasm was carried out in the Byzantine Empire at intervals. During the eighth and ninth centuries A.D, the period of iconoclasm led to the removal of many mosaics and paintings from the Hagia Sophia.
8- The fell of Jerusalem at the hands of Ayyubid Sultan Saladin shocked the Western world who decided to take revenge immediately. Jerusalem didn’t fell to the disoriented crusaders but Constantinople did. In 1204, the cathedral was ruthlessly attacked, desecrated and plundered by the crusaders who ousted the Patriarchy of Constantinople and replaced it with a Latin bishop.
9- A new page was opened in the Hagia Sophia’s history on 29 May 1453. The city of Constantinople fell at the hands of the Ottoman Empire under the rule of Sultan Mehmed II which marked the end of Byzantine Empire. Sultan immediately called for a restoration of the Hagia Sophia and its conversion into a mosque.
10- The alter, bells and sacrificial vessels of the Hagia Sophia were removed while Sultan protected the numerous frescoes and mosaics which were 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 60 meters, were added to the exterior, and a school, kitchen, library, mausoleums, and sultan’s lodge joined the site over the centuries.
11- The most famous and intense restoration of the Hagia Sophia was ordered by Sultan Abdülmecid. The restoration was completed by eight hundred workers between 1847 and 1849. Sultan commissioned Swiss-Italian architect brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati who consolidated the dome and vaults, straightened the columns, and revised the decoration of the exterior and the interior of the building.
12- Hagia Sophia remained the principal mosque of Istanbul for about 500 years until it was converted into a museum on 1 February 1935 by the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. The Turkish Council of Ministers stated that due “to its historical significance, the conversion of the (Hagia Sophia) mosque, a unique architectural monument of art located in Istanbul, into a museum will please the entire Eastern world and its conversion to a museum will cause humanity to gain a new institution of knowledge.”
[From Robert Nelson, “Hagia Sophia: 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument,” University of Chicago Press, 2004]
13- It remained the largest cathedral in the world until the construction of Medievel Seville Cathedral in 1520. Another fact is that only Patheon in Rome has slightly bigger dome than the dome of Hagia Sophia in the world.
14- Hagia Sophia was designed with a very large dome which is said to have changed the history of architecture. Because of the forty windows around the base of the dome, it is famous for the mystical quality of light that reflects everywhere in the interior of the nave, the area where worshippers sit. The unique character of the design of Hagia Sophia shows how it is one of the most ambitious monuments of ancient architecture and a supreme masterpiece of Byzantine architecture.
15- It has the ultimate contrast of two religions together. Both Islam and Christianity have their foothold in museum. While the Islamic calligraphic roundels are suspended from the main dome, the museum also has uncovered Christian mosaics as its prime feature.
My name is Saad Waqar (you can call me Saadi), a full-time adventure travel blogger who’s been exploring the different parts of the world for over 5 years. I started to travel when I was 19 with my first tour to Middle-East.