Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is a Byzantine architectural monument. Its name derives from the Greek [Hagia Sophia], meaning “holy wisdom.”
Built on the ruins of an ancient Christian church, the basilica was designed in 532 AD by Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles at the behest of Emperor Justinian I. It was intended to reflect the divine magnificence of the Byzantine throne.
Work on the basilica concluded in 537, but in 562 a series of earthquake-related collapses led to additions and changes designed to make the basilica more resistant.
A masterpiece of Byzantine art, Hagia Sophia has an immense, 55-meter high cupola flanked by two smaller cupolas on either side.
The inside of the church has three naves and a large narthex, an area reserved for penitents. Behind the altar there is an apse with large, arched glass windows.
Originally decorated with geometrical and floral motifs, the basilica was enriched with figurative mosaics beginning in 867 AD. These mosaics are among the best representations of Byzantine art.
The main cupola has a 40-window arcade that allows light to flood the entire basilica. Because of this illumination, the mosaics shine with particular intensity.
In 1453 Istanbul (then known as Constantinople) was conquered by the Turks and the basilica was transformed into a mosque. All its sacred Christian icons were removed. Four minarets were installed, from the tops of which faithful Muslims were called to prayer.
In 1934, Kemal Atatürk, the secular president of Turkey, decided to transform Hagia Sophia into a historical museum. The marble floors and mosaics were restored, returning the basilica to its ancient splendor. During the restoration, architectural traces of what is believed to be a pre-Justinian church were found.
Hagia Sophia remains the first major example of Byzantine architecture. In 1985 UNESCO designated the building a World Heritage Site.