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Hagia Sophia's architecture: Grand Dome, intricate mosaics, & tall columns

Hagia SophiaArchitecture

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 narrates captivating stories. It has been influenced heavily by 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. 

Architectural style of the Hagia Sophia

Architectural style of the Hagia Sophia

Who designed the Hagia Sophia?

Hagia Sophia construction architect

Anthemius of Tralles

Anthemius was born in Tralles, a city in Asia Minor, and played a key role in devising the innovative architectural solutions that enabled the construction of the Hagia Sophia's massive dome. His understanding of geometry and mechanics helped builders overcome technical challenges and create a series of arches and semi-domes to support the imposing dome.

Hagia Sophia construction architect

Isidore of Miletus

Isidore, hailing from the city of Miletus, was a skilled architect and mathematician. He collaborated closely with Anthemius and conceptualized the overall architectural plan of the Hagia Sophia, including its distinctive dome and innovative structural features. Isidore's meticulous attention to detail and his understanding of architectural aesthetics helped to shape the Hagia Sophia into a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture.

Structure of Hagia Sophia

Structure of Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia exhibits a unique blend of architectural elements from various civilizations and periods, resulting in a structure that is both grand and harmonious.

  • Dome and central space: At the heart of the Hagia Sophia lies its massive central dome, which dominates the interior space. With a diameter of 31 meters, the dome appears to float above the building and is supported by a series of pendentives and squinches.
  • Columns and arches: The columns inside the mosque, many of which were salvaged from ancient Roman buildings, support the weight of the structure. The arches, both circular and pointed, also provide additional structural support and contribute to the overall aesthetic appeal of the building.
  • Buttresses and piers: To support the immense weight of the central dome, a system of buttresses and piers was included in the building's design. These massive structures help to transfer the load of the dome downwards and prevent the walls from buckling under the strain.
  • Exterior facade: The exterior facade is characterized by its simple yet elegant design, with rows of windows and arched openings punctuating the walls. After its conversion into a mosque in the 15th century, minarets were added to its structure.
  • Decorative elements: There are intricate mosaics, marble panels, and carved reliefs throughout the interior of the mosque. The mosaics depict religious scenes and figures, adding to the spiritual atmosphere of the interior space.

Stages of construction of the Hagia Sophia

Led by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, the Hagia Sophia's construction process spanned approximately 6 years, from 532 to 537 AD.

Planning and design:

Before any construction began, Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire commissioned Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus to design a cathedral that would surpass all others in grandeur and magnificence. The architects drew upon their expertise in mathematics and engineering to conceive of a structure that would feature a vast central dome supported by semi-domes, columns, and arches.

Site preparation:

Once the design was finalized, the builders chose a site in Constantinople to construct the Hagia Sophia. Massive amounts of building materials, including stone, brick, and marble, were gathered and transported to the site in preparation for construction.

Foundation:

The construction of the foundation marked the beginning of physical construction on the Hagia Sophia. Given the immense weight of the building and the need for stability, the architects ensured that a combination of stone and concrete was used for the mosque's base.

Walls and structural elements:

With the foundation in place, the workers began to construct the walls and structural elements of the Hagia Sophia. This involved the erection of massive piers, arches, and buttresses to support the weight of the central dome. Skilled craftsmen worked tirelessly to cut and shape the stone and marble blocks and assemble them according to the architects' specifications.

Dome:

The construction of the dome was perhaps the most challenging and impressive stage of the Hagia Sophia's construction. The architects devised a system of pendentives and squinches to support the dome and distribute its weight evenly.

Interior decoration:

Once the structural elements of the Hagia Sophia were in place, skilled artisans were employed to create intricate mosaics and adorn the walls and ceilings with decorative elements. The interior of the Hagia Sophia was embellished with gold leaf, marble columns, and colorful mosaics depicting religious scenes and figures.

Completion and consecration:

After 6 years of tireless efforts, the Hagia Sophia was completed in 537 AD. It was consecrated as a cathedral by Emperor Justinian I in a lavish ceremony attended by religious leaders from across the empire.

Overall, the construction of the Hagia Sophia was a monumental undertaking that required meticulous planning, skilled artisans, and innovative engineering techniques. Its completion marked a crowning achievement of Byzantine architecture.

Hagia Sophia through the ages

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 architecture

Hagia Sophia Church

Over time, the Hagia Sophia has undergone many changes. 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 architecture

Hagia Sophia Mosque

As a mosque under the Ottomans, a small minaret was added in the southwest corner of the Hagia Sophia Mosque. A widespread renovation of the Hagia Sophia Mosque was ordered by Sultan Abdulmejid I in 1847. Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati, two 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 architecture

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 on World Monuments Watch in 1996 and again in 1998 by the World Monuments Fund (WMF). The first stage of work, with the Turkish Ministry of Culture, was to stabilize the cracked roof. By 2006, the WMF project was complete, although many other parts of the Hagia Sophia still need substantial improvements.

What to see inside the Hagia Sophia?

If you’re planning a visit, here are the key Hagia Sophia architectural points to focus on.

hagia sophia architecture

Minarets

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. 

hagia sophia dome

Dome

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 architecture

Mosaics

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.




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Frequently asked questions about Hagia Sophia's architecture

What is Hagia Sophia's architectural style?

Hagia Sophia's architectural style is a blend of Byzantine, Roman, Greek, and Islamic influences. It features a large central dome supported by pendentives and buttresses, intricate mosaics, and marble columns. After it was converted to a mosque, the Ottomans added minarets and Islamic calligraphy on its walls.

Who designed the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia was designed by two architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. Emperor Justinian I had commissioned them to create a cathedral that would surpass all others in grandeur and magnificence. After its completion in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia was the tallest cathedral in Istanbul for many years to come.

When was Hagia Sophia built?

The construction of the Hagia Sophia began in 532 AD and was completed in 537 AD. It took approximately six years to build this architectural marvel. The Hagia Sophia was consecrated as a cathedral by Emperor Justinian I upon its completion.

What's inside Hagia Sophia?

The interior of the Hagia Sophia boasts intricate mosaics, marble columns, and decorative elements. Some of its most notable highlights include the massive central dome, beautiful Byzantine mosaics, the mihrab (prayer niche) and minbar (pulpit), and the intricate calligraphy from its Islamic period.

What's on the exterior of Hagia Sophia?

The exterior of the Hagia Sophia features a simple yet elegant design with rows of windows, arched openings, and minarets added during its time as a mosque. Originally clad in marble, the exterior walls have undergone various modifications over the centuries.