Hagia Sophia’s History – A cathedral, mosque and museum
photo by Ryan

Hagia Sophia was such an architectural feat of its time that Emperor Justinian I supposedly declared ‘Oh, Solomon I have outdone thee!’ It’s the only building in the world to have served as a Catholic Cathedral, as well as hold the seat of Greek Orthodox Christianity and Sunni Islam. Known as many names, to English it’s ‘The Church of the Holy Wisdom’, to Greeks as ‘Hagia Sophia’, ‘Saint Sophia’ in Latin and ‘Ayasofya’ or ‘Aya Sofya’ in Turkish. From cathedral to mosque to museum, it’s no surprise that it’s universally acknowledged as one of the great buildings of the world.

It was the largest church for 1000 years after its construction in 537AD, beautified by an interior of polychrome marble and over 30 million gold mosaic tiles. The architectural wonder lay with its dome, stretching to just over 30m in diameter and perched over 50m above the ground. It wasn’t perfect, however, and cracked and crumbled after a couple of earthquakes. But its structure apparently provided a model for several Ottoman mosques thereafter, including the Blue Mosque across the way. It was in Hagia Sopia that Byzantine emperors were crowned on a specially marked spot in the nave of the Church. It served the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for over 900 years.

Hagia Sophia was apparently filled with a collection of holy relics, including the shroud of Mary, nails from the true cross and the tombstone of Jesus, until the Fourth Crusades ransacked the city in 1204. The Crusaders also replaced the Patriarch with their own Latin Bishop,which is thought to have cemented the Great Schism between Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic. But the weakened Byzantines fought back and claimed it once again in 1261. By the time Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror stormed the city in 1453, their strength failed them and they lost their church as it was converted into an imperial mosque. The stone cannonballs that litter the gardens of the outer courtyard today are said to be the very cannonballs that Mehmet the Conqueror used to sack the city. It served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for almost 500 years.

Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery meant the beautiful mosaics were covered with plaster, which has been partially uncovered today to reveal Byzantine mosaics side-by-side Ottoman designs. The best Byzantine mosaics have been uncovered on the mezzanine level. Now Hagia Sophia stands as a historical reminder of it tumultuous past, when Ataturk secularized it as a museum in 1934.

Hagia Sophia’s sealed underground chambers fed the minds of mystical daydreamers. Legends talked of an imprisoned devil and the possibilities of the Byzantine’s attempt to protect sacred relics. There was even thought to be a secret passage that extends from Tekfur Palace, next to the city walls, to the islands of the Marmara Sea. Regardless of myths, Turkish divers recently searched the flooded chambers. The floor directly under the Hagia Sophia’s magnificent dome covered a main water reservoir that was 12m deep. Their discovery found two tunnels that were possibly used by the 5th-century Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II to privately go to Tekfur Palace and the hippodrome.

Interesting Facts

  • The calligraphic inscription that sits in the apex of Hagia Sophia’s dome is considered the highest mosque inscription in the world. It is a Koranic verse that reads “Allah is the light of the earth and the sky’.
  • Hagia Sophia, also known as Saint Sophia, does not actually refer to any particular saint. Rather, ‘Saint Sophia’ translates to ‘wisdom’ in Greek. Therefore it refers to the Church of the Holy Wisdom of God.
  • Bones discovered under the floors are believed to be those of the child Saint Antigenos, who was the only human buried in Hagia Sophia up until the 13th century.

Meet the author


After leaving Australia in 2003, Casey's path landed her in Istanbul for a summer stint only. Once addicted to Istanbul's eccentricity and charm, Casey failed to find reason to leave six years later. An avid traveller of sorts, Casey spent most of her time roaming across Europe and the Middle East looking for adventure and cultural experiences. Now a freelance editor and writer working from Madrid, Casey spends her days finding the words to excite the inner traveller in everyone.