Posted October 23, 2016

For nearly 1000 years it was the largest enclosed building on earth, but what is unique about Hagia Sophia is how it carries the history of Christianity and Islam within its walls. Today, its function is as a museum, which isn’t surprising considering the site’s rich history.

Hagia Sophia is the third church to stand on this site and near the entrance marble stones with reliefs are the last reminders of the second church. Built in 415 CE, the second church was destroyed during riots in 532. Having just managed to retain power, Emperor Justinian I resolved to rebuild the church on a grander scale. Five years later, the main structure of Hagia Sophia as it is known today was completed.

The importance that Hagia Sophia had for Justinian and subsequent leaders can be seen by some of the other, perhaps more overlooked parts of the site. A number of the columns here were taken from the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. The presence of runic inscriptions that were carved by Vikings also shows this importance. The Varangian Guard were an elite unit of Vikings who acted as special bodyguards to the emperor. Allowing these men to leave their mark at Hagia Sophia shows how special the church really was.

For any visitor to Hagia Sophia, the grand dome is undoubtedly the highlight. Rising 50m high and 30m across, the grand dome symbolises heaven and the way that the light reflects through the interior of the dome really helps communicate this.

Hagia Sophia briefly spent time as a Roman Catholic Church after knights of the Fourth Crusade seized Constantinople. After 57 years, the church returned to its Orthodox roots after the Byzantines seized back the area, but Hagia Sophia would not remain a church for long. Weakened by the Crusades, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453 and Hagia Sophia was declared by Sultan Mehmed as the new imperial mosque. Over the next century, the four prominent minarets that surround the site were constructed under imperial orders.

As the centuries progressed, Hagia Sophia was extensively strengthened with supports to its exterior, which would make it less susceptible to earthquakes. Inside, the Christian mosaics on the walls were covered with plaster and a vast carpet was laid over the marble floor. These actions would inadvertently preserve all the mosaic and marble work until it came to being uncovered once more in the 1930s.

In mid-19th century, giant calligraphy discs inscribed with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandsons of Muhammad were hung on the walls; however, by 1935 anymore additions to Hagia Sophia ceased when the site was turned into a museum.

Today, images of Islam and Christianity coexist under one roof, reminding visitors that Istanbul is truly the place where East meets West.

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