Everything to Know About Hagia Sophia's Architecture: Dome, Mosaics, Columns, & Decorative Elements
Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is an architectural marvel. Having survived through violent shifts of empires, disasters and multiple renovation efforts, it lives today as a testament to history. Every part of the Hagia Sophia, from its walls and flooring to its dome and minarets narrate captivating stories. It has been influenced heavily by a beautiful blend of both Byzantine and Ottoman elements of design. If you’re planning a visit to Istanbul, witnessing Hagia Sophia’s architecture should be at the top of your list.
Hagia Sophia Architecture
The Hagia Sophia has undergone many regime changes, constantly seeing new architectural elements and designs being added as it went from a church to a mosque, then a museum and now a mosque again. Here’s a look at the essential architecture through its different time periods.
Hagia Sophia Church
Over time, the Hagia Sophia has suffered severe damage due to earthquakes, riots and neglect across various numerous occasions since its initial construction. Therefore, the structure that one can see today has changed a lot since its first form as the Hagia Sophia Church. A major renovation was carried out in the 10th Century by Emperor Basil II. He restored the collapsed dome of the church and installed four large murals of cherubim, a new representation of Christ on the vault, a burial cloth of Christ, and on the apse, a new representation of the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus, among the apostles, Peter and Paul.
Hagia Sophia Mosque
As a mosque under the Ottoman’s, this landmark was renovated, restored, and modified extensively. A small minaret in the southwest corner was added to the Hagia Sophia Mosque before 1481, followed by another in the northeast corner before 1512. A widespread renovation of the Hagia Sophia Mosque was ordered by Sultan Abdulmejid I in 1847 and completed in two years. Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati, Swiss-Italian architects, supervised the straightening of some columns, the securing of the vaults, the consolidation of the dome, and the redecoration of the mosque's exterior and interior. A new maqsurah was added to the northern aisle of the Mosque of Hagia Sophia in 1850.
Hagia Sophia Museum
Since the Hagia Sophia was built on a fault line, every earthquake in the region wreaked havoc on its foundation. Its condition continued to deteriorate and Hagia Sophia was listed in 1996 and again in 1998 by the World Monuments Fund (WMF) on World Monuments Watch. The first stage of work, with the Turkish Ministry of Culture, was to stabilize the cracked roof. To enable the preservation of its mosaics and the dome’s interior, young Turkish conservators were extensively trained. By 2006, the WMF project was complete, although many other parts of the Hagia Sophia continue to need substantial improvements in terms of stability, restoration, and conservation.
What to See at the Hagia Sophia
If you’re planning a visit, here are the key Hagia Sophia architectural points to focus on.
The minarets were an Ottoman addition and not part of the original Byzantine church. The southeast minaret was constructed with red brick and can be dated back to the reign of Mehmed or his successor Beyazıd II. The other three were constructed with white limestone and sandstone, of which Bayezid II erected the slender northeast column and Selim II erected the two identical larger minarets to the west.
The iconic Hagia Sophia dome can be instantly spotted from a distance. It has a diameter of around 31 meters. Four spherical triangular pendentives bear the dome. The pendentives are the corners of the dome's square base, curving upwards into the dome to support it, restricting the dome's lateral forces and allowing its weight to flow downwards. The dome was left somewhat elliptical due to repairs.
Hagia Sophia has mosaics on the inside of its dome, the imperial gate, the southwestern gate, as well as the northern tympanum. However, the most significant of them are the mosaics on the apse. Mary, the mother of Jesus carrying the Christ Child and sitting on a jeweled thokos backless throne, is shown in the mosaic in the semi-dome above the apse on the east end. It is not known when the mosaic was installed.
The vast interior of Hagia Sophia has an intricate structure. The nave is enclosed by a central dome at 55.6 m above ground level. Arched openings are extended by half domes of equal diameter to the central dome on the western entrance and eastern liturgical side. These are borne on smaller semi-domed exedras; a hierarchy of dome-headed elements designed to create a wide oblong interior capped by the central dome.