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The Emperor Justinian Builds

Hagia Sophia


Sitting on Aysasofya Square in Istanbul, Turkey is one of the most astounding architectural achievements in the world.  It is the Hagia Sophia or the “Church of the Holy Wisdom”. The words Hagia Sophia mean “divine wisdom.”  Its shear magnitude was unprecedented in its day.  It is an immense structure consisting of domes and spires.  It measures 265 feet long and 228 feet 8 inches wide, and it's main central dome, the most prominent feature of the structure stands 185 feet, 8 inches high and spans 102 feet 8 inches wide across.  A total of twelve different varieties of marble make up the columns, galleries, nave and other parts of the massive ornate building.  Gold leaf and beautiful mosaics, depicting biblical and theological scenes, jeweled crosses and eight pointed stars decorate the interior of the church.  One such mosaic depicts Jesus on a throne flanked by the Virgin Mary to his right and John the Baptist to his left with the inscription “Peace be unto you.  I am the light of the world”, another demonstrates a pictorial scheme for salvation.  

            Nearly as interesting as the building itself, is it history.  The Roman Empire moved its seat from Rome to Byzantium (or Constantinople, or Istanbul) in the early fourth century by Constantine I.  He envisioned a great church in his new city.  This dream was not realized by him but by his son, Constantius II.  The first church on the site, “The Megali Ecclesia” or great church was originally dedicated on February 15, 360.  This church however did not last that long, a mob protesting the exile of John Chrysostom, the archbishop of Constantinople, burnt it down on June 20, 404. 

            Then emperor, Theosidius II rebuilt the church to the exact original floor plan, the new church was dedicated on October 10, 415.  This church stood for nearly 120 years until on January 12 and 13 of 532 the Nika Riots, protesting the empires unfair taxation and extravagance, caused its destruction once again.

            At this point Emperor Justinian may have already been planning a larger, grander church.  After he squashed the revolt he got right to building this new more spectacular church, in fact it was only a matter of 39 days before ground was broken for its construction.

            To execute the task of planning and building this church, Justinian hired two men who were not well renowned builders.  Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus were, however, well versed in mathematics, statics, and kinetics.  This was important because in order to build something so big, so unlike anything that stood in that time it was going to take theoretical knowledge.  The blistering pace of the construction, which only took five years ten months and four days, and its exotic ornamentation, rare materials were brought in from all over the known world, led to its astronomical cost.  Upon completion of the church it is reported that Justinian cried out “My God, I am grateful to you for choosing me to complete this monument.  I am now greater than Solomon.”

            The Hagia Sophia remained under the empires reign until May 29, 1453, when the Ottoman Empire stormed Constantinople.  After they sacked the city, the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque, changing its ornamentation and orientation. 

            The building remained under Ottoman control until the twentieth century, when it was taken over by the Republican Government of Turkey.  On February 1, 1935 it became a museum.  The Byzantine Institute of America spent much of the twentieth century restoring the church; this work was done in 1964.  Since then more restoration has occurred, and many of the original décor is being uncovered and revitalized.



For more on Hagia Sophia see:



C. Mango, Materials for the Study of the Mosaics of St. Sophia at Istanbul (Washington DC, 1962) [analytical study of the dossier of available drawings, mostly 19th century, of the known decoration].

R .L. Van Nice, St. Sophia in Istanbul: An Architectural Survey, 2 vols. (Washington DC).

T. F. Matthews, The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park, PA, 1971)

Roy T. Matthews and F. Dewitt Platt, The Western Humanities: Third Edition, Chapter 8.

Cyri Heinz Kahler. Hagia Sophia. With a chapter on the mosaics, [1967]

Patrick Balfour, Baron, Lord Kinross, Hagia Sophia [1904].

Krautheimer, Richard.  Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1975.

“Hagia Sophia.”  International Dictionary of Historical Places. 1995

The Church of the Hagia Sophia. Online. The Ecumenical Partriarchate of Constantinople.  Internet.  10 Oct. 1999. Available URL: <>

Edited by Sonya Anderson
Research by Wayne Gorski
Written by Kimberly Tauer
May, 8 1998

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