Hagia Sophia Architecture and Dome Features


Hagia Sophia Architecture

Facts about the History, Architecture and Dome of Hagia Sophia

The dome of Hagia Sophia was the greatest architectural achivement of human race in the medieval world. The height and breadth of the dome that dominates the church’s central space have awakened awe and admiration in visitors in all periods.

The Christian world associated the construction of this bold dome with superhuman powers, and this belief, coupled with religious faith, made the Hagia Sophia the unrivalled symbol of medieval mysticism.

However Hagia Sophia of today is not the first church to be built there. Let’s now take a look at the story of three churches built at the same place.

Hagia Sophia: A Marvel of Ancient Wisdom

Architecture of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

Hagia Sophia from Sultanahmet Park © Photo: Serhat Engul

Hagia Sophia Architecture, History and Facts

  • Megale Ekklesia – The Great Church (360-405 AD)

The first church was started to be built with the name of Megale Ekklesia by the founder of Istanbul, Constantine the Great, on the same area. This church was finished by his son Constantius II.

The reason the early church was destroyed was due to a public uprising. Empress Aelia Eudoxia, the wife of Emperor Arcadius, placed a silver sculpture of her in the courtyard of the church. This wasn’t favored by the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom.

After fiercely opposing the empress in his sermons, Archbishop John was exiled from the city. The people of Constantinople wanted to restore their archbishop known as The Golden Mouth (Chrysostomos). The conflict between the people and the emperor turned into a rebellion, and during the turmoil Hagia Sophia burned down.

Theodosian Hagia Sophia (2nd Church)

Hagia Sophia Facts

Theodosian Hagia Sophia © Serhat Engul

  • Church Of Theodosius II (415-532 AD)

Theodosius II initiated the building of a new church. The new church, made completely by stone and marble, was a beautiful structure but it was destroyed as a result of another uprising 100 years later.

Emperor Justinian is considered as the most important ruler of Byzantine Empire that lasted 1000 years. His fame stems from the fact that he wanted to re-establish the glory of Roman Empire. Justinian managed to do this in certain ways by significantly expanding the borders and building monumental structures like Hagia Sophia. However even such great deeds did not prevent him from almost losing his throne due to a riot.

A riot broke out at the 5th year of Justinian’s rule in Constantinople. The Second Church together with many other buildings in the city were burnt down during the uprising called Nika Revolt. The riots were repressed after Justinian’s general Belisarius killed 30,000 people in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

The emperor decided to embark on a giant project to consolidate his shaken authority. The name of this project was the Church of Holy Wisdom, in other words, Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia Architecture, History and Facts

Hagia Sophia Architecture

Details of Hagia Sophia Architecture to admire.

  • 3rd Church: Justinian’s Hagia Sophia

The best architects of the period, Anthemios and Isidore, were commissioned for the work. They had to build the biggest temple the world had ever seen. However, this was more than just planning and building the church. Because they had to work with ambitious and demanding emperor Justinian.

Thanks to their incredible architectural genius, they planned a dome with 32 meters width and 49 meters height. Weight of the dome caused big issues. For the lightest bricks possible, raw material was brought from Rhodes. To stick bricks together, they invented a mortar which had never been used before. This mixture has been holding the structure together for 1500 years.

Although the dome was very large, it did not reflect the grandeur of the building. Therefore, they did something for the first time in history in order to make the dome look larger. They built two semi domes next to the central dome. These two semi domes not only create huge extra space but also support the central dome by pressurizing to the sides. These semi domes are also supported by quarter domes and covering main carrier walls in a classy way.

Full Dome and Semi-Domes of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Dome Architecture

Dome of Hagia Sophia

The pressure created by the half-domes supporting the central dome on the East and West axes brought the building to collapse over the centuries. For this reason, flying buttresses were built on the west during the late Byzantine era. In the 15th century, Ottomans faced the same problem and built giant flying buttresses on the east. These works can be seen around the building today.

Roman Basilica Plan, Semi Domes and Pendentives

The genius of the architects who built the Hagia Sophia is that they combined the basilica, the traditional church architecture, with the central dome. Hagia Sophia is rectangular in the east-west direction, like a Roman basilica.

When you enter the building from the West, you feel that you are pulled towards the apse in the East. The Roman basilica and its structure that gathered the clergy in the apse were preserved. However, placing a flamboyant dome like The Pantheon (in Rome) on a Basilica-planned building was a revolution in Roman history.

The real name of the Byzantine empire in history is the Eastern Roman Empire. They preserved the architectural foundations they inherited from Ancient Rome and developed the techniques. Thus, the largest domed basilica of the world could be built.

In order to make this possible, it was necessary to find a way to transition from an angular structure to a round dome. This was achieved thanks to the pendentives. The use of pendentives for this purpose is a first in Hagia Sophia.

There are religious figures called “Seraphim Angels” painted on the pendentives. They were the angels who guarded the city of Constantinople in Byzantine mythology. They had been covered for a long time during the Ottoman period. One of them has been brought to daylight during the recent restorations in Hagia Sophia.

Six Winged Angels on the Pendentives

Hagia Sophia History

Seraphim Angel on the Pendentive © Serhat Engul

Hagia Sophia and Ottoman Mosque Architecture

This innovative idea was also used in Ottoman mosques. The best example is Blue Mosque, located next to Hagia Sophia. When you look at the mosque from outside, you see the same design. Full dome, semi domes and quarter domes give you the look of cascading domes.


Blue Mosque © Serhat Engul

Imperial Mosques in Istanbul Old City

You can also see the New Mosque (Yeni Cami) and Suleymaniye Mosque on the picture below.

The three mosques I have counted so far were built in the classical period of the Ottoman Empire and bear some similarities with Hagia Sophia. Turkish Mosque Architecture had evolved starting from the Seljuk Empire and took its final shape after the conquest of Constantinople.

It evolved again in the 18th and 19th centuries and was influenced by Baroque and Neoclassical styles.

Classical Mosque Architecture (from 15th to 17th Century)

Mosques of Istanbul similar to Hagia Sophia

Imperial Mosques of Istanbul © Serhat Engul

The Collapse of the Dome of Hagia Sophia in 558

Hagia Sophia was started to be built in 532 and opened in 537. This biggest structure ever until then was finished in a record time. However, Istanbul was an earthquake zone. Following the devastating earthquake in 558, dome of Hagia Sophia was destroyed.

Emperor Justinian was alive at this date but both architects were dead. Nephew of one of the original architects, Isidore the Younger, was entrusted with the work.

Young Isidore took the work slowly and built a very strong dome in four years. The original height of 49 meters were increased to 56 meters. Reportedly the young architect used volcanic raw material to produce solid bricks. This new bricks were lighter, yet much stronger.

Young Isidore also added 40 windows around the new dome. Therefore he obtained perfectly balanced, less heavy, and solid dome after all. The proof of his accomplishment is the Hagia Sophia of today itself. The dome still stands after 1500 years.

Hagia Sophia History, Facts and Architecture

Importance of Hagia Sophia Architecture

Hagia Sophia from Sultanahmet Square

Hagia Sophia Mosque during Ottoman Empire

Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in 1453 when Ottomans captured the city. Ottomans did not change the general structure of the building. But they restored it due to the fact that it was not taken good care of during the declining years of Byzantine Empire. Initially they added only one minaret to a mosque, followed by other minarets.

Due to the old structure, big pressure from the center to the corners caused problems when it was a mosque during Ottomans. Famous Ottoman architect Sinan, who restored Hagia Sophia, built enormous flying buttresses. Twin minarets on the west side of the structure was also built during his time.

Hagia Sophia stayed as the biggest cathedral in the world from 537 until 1626 when St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt. It is still one of the biggest temples in the world.

Hagia Sophia as a Mosque in the Ottoman Period


Informative Panels in the Hagia Sophia

Evolution of Roman Churches during the Byzantine Period

If you are curious about the architectural transformation of Roman churches since Constantine period, you can also look at the article called Byzantine Churches in Istanbul, which I published on another site.

Hagia Sophia Architecture, History, Facts By Serhat Engul


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