Hagia Sophia

Instructor: Julie Buckler
Course: The Urban Imagination
Students: Aliza Theis



The Hagia Sophia is a unique lieu de memoire in the city in that, despite its constant crumbling, it has been renovated just often enough to live through 1500 years of Turkish history. Its treatment has little changed throughout the centuries; with each new reign of power comes a new era of looting, then reclamation. Ultimately, despite the changing regimes, Hagia Sophia represents an age value and grandeur that demands preservation.

The Hagia Sophia, originally called the Megale Ekklesia, or the Great Church, was the cornerstone of Byzantine Empire and the capital city of Constantinople. The church itself was constructed by the son of Emperor Constantine in 360 CE. A century later, the church became known as Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, the Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God, or, for short, the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). However, the building we see today was actually constructed by emperor Justinian I on the same site in 537 CE, after riots destroyed the original church.

Calamities continued to strike the basilica, and yet it retained its crowning glory as the largest cathedral in the world for one thousand years. Perhaps partly due to its speedy construction time (in less than six years!) and its unprecedented scale (the dome’s height reaches 160 feet into the air), the Hagia Sophia faced multiple infrastructural issues. Earthquakes caused the dome to crack and even collapse in 558 (see this rededication poem in 563 by Paul the Silentiary), and multiple rounds or riots destroyed parts of the building, but the basilica was always quickly rebuilt– generations of leaders saw the historic nature and sheer grandiosity of the monument to be worth preserving, even if the original structure has since been razed to the ground multiple times.


During the Holy Roman Empire’s Fourth Crusade from 1204–1261, the Latin Christians took over Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia. The church then became a center for Roman Catholic affairs, including the coronation of the emperor. The city itself was completely desecrated within the first three days of the siege, with the looting of several cultural institutions and monuments of the Byzantine capital. By the time the Byzantines reclaimed the city, the basilica was in complete disrepair and took another hundred years– with the interruption of a few more earthquakes– to bring back to its original glory.


In 1453, Sultan Mehmed and his Ottoman empire finally captured Constantinople. After a period of siege and looting, Mehmed converted Hagia Sophia to the Aya Sofya mosque, plastering over the Christian icons and mosaics and adding in new minarets from which the muezzins could perform their call to prayer. As years of age began to wear on the building, the most famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan– widely considered the world’s first earthquake engineer– was contracted to fortify the structure.

Later sultans also made important contributions to the strength and durability of the building. Generations of orders for the ancient Byzantine mosaics to be re-plastered ironically aided their longevity, and today they are still preserved.


Today, the Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman monument functions as a museum. In 1934, Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, turned the mosque into a secular site, finally exposing the centuries-covered medieval mosaics and proclaiming that the structure could not by law be used for any religious worship. In the past two decades, it has undergone even more restorative efforts largely by the World Monuments Fund, and is now one of the top tourist destinations in the city. The identity of the building remains contested as efforts have been made to both convert it to a mosque and to a Christian church.