earliest of Istanbul’s church was constructed during the
reign of the Emperor Constantinus in basilical form, with a
wooden roof. It was then the cathedral church of the city, and
entitled Megala Ekklesia. From the Vth century onwards it became
known as the church of Divine Wisdom - Hagia Sophia. The original
church was burnt said to have been during an uprising on 20th
June, 404, was rebuilt during the reign of Theodosius II, and
re-opened on 10th October, 415. The second church was destroyed
by fire during the Nika uprising in 532, and was completely
restored with the support of the Empress Theodora, wife of
Justinianus after that uprising had been suppressed.
The emperor commissioned the architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidor of Miletus to rebuild it, and according to the account of the Byzantine historian Prokopius, the emperor ordered a building of great stature and magnificence, using his imperial authority to ensure that
nothing was lacking in the building of it. Eight columns of red porphyry were brought from the Diana Temple at Ephesus. Other marbles were obtained from classical sites and from some of the finest marble quarries of the Byzantine world. A thousand masons and ten thousand apprentices worked on the building, the aim being to finish it as soon as possible. The work began in 532 AD, was completed in five years, 11 months and 10 days, and the church was consecrated on 27th December, 537 by the Emperor Justinianus. The grand piers over the underground cisterns on the site were, to some extent, a measure against earthquake damage, but did not prevent this monumental structure from suffering some damage during earthquakes in 533, 557 and 559. We learn that it was restored in 562 by the architect Isidoros, nephew of the earlier architect of the same name, who raised the previously depressed dome by some 6.25 m. Further support for the major piers was provided by buttresses.
In the 9th century, during the reigns of the emperors Theophilos and Mikhael III, the bronze doors were installed. In 869 and 889, the church was damaged by earthquake, and was reopened after extensive repair on 13th May, 994. Mosaics were added during the reign of the Emperor Basileios II.
During the Latin invasion of 1204, St. Sophia was raided and stripped of its finest ornaments, including the doors, which were mistakenly believed to be gold. The building was greatly damaged during this invasion. Four major buttresses were added to the building in 1317, but it underwent considerable damage later in the earthquake of 1346, to be restored once again in 1354 by the architect G. Prella. Mehmet the Conqueror had the church restored once again after the conquest of Istanbul, and converted it into a mosque. Among the many restorations and additions to this, the largest church of the Byzantine era, one of the most extensive was the addition of buttress walls on the north and south façades in 1317 by Andronikos II.
The four minarets, one on each corner of the building were added at various times during the Ottoman period, the southeastern minaret dating from the reign of Mehmed II, the northeastern minaret to Bayezid II and the two minarets on the western facade to the period of Selim II. The last restoration, carried out during the Ottoman period, the southeastern minaret from the reign of Mehmed II, the northeastern minaret to Bayezit II and the two minarets on the western facade to the period of Selim II. The last restoration, carried out during the Ottoman period coincides with the reign of Abdülmecid. The church was converted into a museum during the recent Republican period, by order of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and re-opened on 1st February, 1935. The building covers an area of 100 x 70 m., and the plan consists of a wide central nave flanked by two smaller naves, an apsis, an inner and outer narthex and a central dome up to 55.6 m. in height. Owing to restorations carried out at various periods, this dome is no longer entirely circular but has, gradually become elliptical.
The forty lobes of the dome, separated by brick ribs, are pierced by oculi. In the center of the dome are inscribed verses from the Koranic text - the Sure-i Nur, executed by the Ottoman calligrapher Kazasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi. The interior of the church is of extreme importance to art historians, being finely decorated with a number of important mosaics and artifacts from various periods. According to accounts of the late classical period, it was decorated with fine mosaics of gold, silver, glass, stone, marble, limestone, granite and terra cotta tesserae.
Some of the more important mosaics are as follows: Entering the main portal to the inner narthex, one sees, over the portal, the figure of the Madonna holding the Christ child, flanked by Constantine the Great on her right, presenting a model of the city of Constantinople to her, and on her left, the Emperor Justinianus presenting a model of the church. This dates from the last quarter of the 10th century and the reign of the Emperor Basil II. The cross-vaulted portico to the inner narthex is decorated with gold mosaics of the Justinian period. These are the original non-figurative mosaics of St. Sophia, which, being non-figurative, released from damage during the Iconoclastic period. The Emperor’s Gate, on the south - western façade of the church is surmounted by a mosaic showing Christ enthroned on a semicircular encrusted throne, holding a book. The medallion to the right of this contains a bust portrait of the Madonna, and to the left, a bust of Gabriel.
The figure prostrating himself before Christ is thought to be the Emperor Leo, and the mosaic is thought to date to the 10th century AD. The semi-dome of the apse contains a mosaic of the Madonna enthroned, holding the Christ child, dating to the 9th century. It is thought to be the earliest figurative mosaic on the Post-iconoclastic period in the church. To the right of the drum stands the white-robed figure of Gabriel, and to the left, nowadays considerably damaged figure of the archangel Michael. Portraits of the saints once decorated the semi-circular arched niches below the northern tympanum, only three of these have survived. On the western wall, contained in the niches, are portraits of the patriarch of the eastern church, the Istanbul patriarchs Saint Ignatius and Ioannes Krysostomos in the first and central niche, and the figure of Saint Ignatius Theophoros, patriarch of Antakya (Antioch) in the fifth niche. These figures are robed in mantles bearing cruciform motifs on the collar and skirt, and hold the bible in their hands. The names of the figures are written beside them in Greek. These mosaics date from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 10th century. The four pendentives of the dome are decorated with the figures of cherubim or seraphim. Those on the eastern side of the church are original, while the western figures were restored in fresco in 1847 by Fossati. Access to the galleries of the church is obtained via a stone-paved ramp. The gallery decorated with green columns directly opposite the apsis was used by the empress and her retinue during ceremonies. Entering the southern gallery from here one passes through a pseudo-wooden marble door, now named the gate of heaven and hell. The right-hand side, decorated with floral motifs representing heaven; the left-hand side, undecorated, representing hell.
Passing through this door one enters the chamber set aside for the meetings of the consuls, decorated with the Deisis mosaic, one of the most famous mosaics in the world. It portrays Christ flanked by the Virgin and John the Baptist. This extremely expressive mosaic dates to the 12th century. In the gallery to the southeast of the Church is to be found the Comnenos mosaic, in which the enthroned Madonna and child enthroned are flanked on the left by the Emperor Ioannes Comnenos II holding a pouch of money and on the right by the Empress Irene, a Hungarian princess.
The figure of the Madonna is surmounted by a monogram describing her as the mother of God, while the names of the other figures are inscribed next to them in Greek. In one corner one can also sees the mosaic portraying the sons of the Emperor Inane (John) Comnenos II, and his co-ruler Alexius Comnenos. The latter is shown in a frontal pose, in elaborate gown and crown, and holds a scepter in his raised right hand. On the northern wall of the emperor’s hall, in the southern gallery is to be found the Zoe mosaic. The empress stands to the right of the enthroned Christ with her third husband, the Emperor Constantine Monomachos IX on his left. The mosaic dates to the 11th century AD. The mosaic of the Emperor Alexander can be seen on the southwestern end of the central hall on the northern gallery.
Alexander, the third son of Basil I, who ruled for 13 months in 912, is shown standing, facing forward, elaborately dressed in ceremonial robes and crown. In his left hand he holds an orb, and in his right hand a pouch. His name and titles are inscribed in two medallions on either side of his head. Dating to the Xth century AD, this mosaic is in reasonably good condition. After seeing these extremely important mosaics, we will have completed our tour of the St. Sophia Church, except for the grounds where one may see the monumental fountain built by the Ottoman Sultan Mahmut I.
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