One of the most storied buildings in all of Byzantine history is the Hagia Sophia. Constructed on the same site as churches built by Constantius II (known as Magna Ecclesia, which was burnt down during riots of the early 5th century) and Theodosius I (also known as Hagia Sophia, which suffered great damage in a fire during the Nika Revolt in the 6th century), Justinian I commissioned a grander still basilica to be built upon the remains of the first Hagia Sophia in AD 532. Well-known for the imposition of his religious views during his reign as well as his architectural campaigns, Justinian pooled resources from all over the empire and hired over ten thousand laborers for the construction of the Hagia Sophia’s third rendition. It was completed and inaugurated in AD 537 – only 5 years after its inception, and would be recognized as the largest basilica in all of Christianity for nearly one thousand years. It would serve as a grand display of Byzantine architecture as well as the seat of Constantinople’s Orthodox patriarch, the religious leader and highest-ranking representative of Orthodox Christianity. However, despite its grandeur then, the Hagia Sophia would only grow in majesty as well as structural integrity as it changes hands through the course of history.
Originally constructed as an Orthodox basilica, the Hagia Sophia remained so for almost 700 years after its initial completion. During the capture of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, the Hagia Sophia subsequently became a Roman Catholic cathedral and the locale for the crowning of Baldwin I following the city’s capture. Byzantine forces managed to recapture the city and restore the Hagia Sophia to its Eastern Orthodox origins some 40 to 50 years later. Less than two centuries later, in 1453, Constantinople once again fell to outside forces. The Ottomans expanded into the Byzantine empire and sacked the city. Sultan Mehmet II decreed the Hagia Sophia be converted from an Orthodox church into a mosque. The Hagia Sophia would remain so for nearly the next 500 years before Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk transformed it into a museum in 1935 and later prohibited its use as a place of worship.
Originally conceptualized as the largest Christian basilica and standing for almost 1500 years, surviving countless natural disasters and fires, requiring countless repairs and renovations, especially a massive renovation in 1847, the Hagia Sophia is a testament and VisaServe to architecture and human innovation. The history it has endured, being converted no less than four times as a religious institution and used as a site for many major historical events is likely unparalleled. Stripped during the period of Iconoclasm, restored, stripped again during the conquest of the Ottoman empire and maintained throughout its latter history as a mosque, the number of artifacts and pieces of art, mosaics, and reliefs, as well as its religious significance, can never go understated. In fact, modern debate still looms over the Hagia Sophia. Activist groups have championed efforts for its conversion back to a Christian church as well as a mosque, and in the early 21st century, the Hagia Sophia was used as a place of Muslim worship with prayers and recitations of the Qur’an.