The Hagia Sophia situated in the Old City of Istanbul has served as a major landmark for centuries visited by millions of tourist including pilgrims touring on the popular Footsteps of St. Paul, Seven Churches of Asia Minor, and Holy Land and Istanbul Christian tours.
The amazing city of Istanbul straddles the Bosporus strait, the waterway separating Europe and Asia, and is home to nearly 15 million residents which live on both sides of the strait. Hagia Sophia was originally built by the Byzantine Emperor Constantius who commissioned construction of the first basilica in 360 A. D. At that time the city was known as Constantinople, taking its name from Constantine I, and the building served as a Greek Orthodox Christian Church.
The first Hagia Sophia was built with a wooden roof. The structure burned in 404 A.D. due to political conflict, rebuilt only to be burned a second time nearly a century later. Unable to repair the damage caused by fire, Justinian ordered the demolition of the Hagia Sophia in 532, and commissioned the famous architects Isidoros and Anthemios to build a new basilica. The third Hagia Sophia basilica was completed in 537, and is the one standing today.
On December 27, 537 the first religious mass was held in the "new" Hagia Sophia, and it is said the Emperor Justinian said, "My Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to create such a worshipping place."
From the re-opening, the third and final basilica was indeed a stunning structure. It featured traditional designs, domed roof, and a semi-domed altar. The dome’s supporting arches were covered with exquisite mosaics of winged angles. The marble floor and ceiling were manufactured in Anatolia and Syria, while other parts of the floor were imported from as far away as North Africa. The interior of the Hagia Sophia is unique and beautiful with enormous marble slabs that were designed to imitate moving water.
The Hagia Sophia has a 180 feet high doomed roof and measures 269 feet in length and 240 feet in width. And, the Hagia Sophia’s 104 impressive columns were imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus in Greece as well as from Egypt.
The central dome of the basilica is surrounded by a ring of windows supported by two semi-domes and two arch openings creating a large nave, and this is where originally there were beautiful Byzantine mosaics made of terra cota, silver, gold, and colorful stones portraying figures and scenes from the Bible.
For more than 900 years the Hagia Sophia served a pivotal role in Byzantine culture and Christianity. As a Greek Orthodox church serving the official religion of the Byzantines, the basilica became the ceremonial site where new emperors were crowned.
However, during the Crusades, the city of Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia, were under the Roman Empire control for a brief period in the 13th century. The basilica was severely damaged during this time, but was later repaired by the Byzantines once they took control again of the city.
The next period of change for the basilica began less than 200 years later, when the Ottomans, led by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed captured Constantinople in 1453. The Ottomans renamed the city Istanbul. Islam became the central religion of the Ottomans, and the Hagia Sophia was renovated into a mosque. As part of the conversion, the Ottomans covered many of the original Biblical-themed mosaics with Islamic calligraphy as well as making many other changes to the building including adding four minarets to the original building.
Some 100 years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and since 1935, nine years after the Republic of Turkey the world-famous structure has been operating as a national museum, attracting more than 3 million visitors per year of all faiths and religious beliefs, and especially Christian pilgrims traveling to Holy Land destinations.