hagia sophia history

Know About Hagia Sophia History

The city of Istanbul has long fascinated travelers. Soaked in culture and history, the city offers a host of experiences for tourists -- one of the most popular ones being a visit to the famed Hagia Sophia. Dating back to year 537, the Hagia Sophia is a majestic structure that has survived the harsh test of time, including violent overthrow of powerful empires. If you’re planning a visit, here’s what you need to know about Hagia Sophia history,

Hagia Sophia History At A Glance

hagia sophia history
  • While the first Hagia Sophia was constructed in 360, the structure seen today was first constructed in 537
  • It was built under the Byzantine east Roman Empire, during the reign of Emperor Constantius II
  • The Hagia Sophia, under the Byzantines, served as a church between 537 - 1453 until Constantinople fell to the Ottomans
  • As a mosque, the Hagia Sophia reigned between 1453 - 1922. Several architectural modifications were carried out over the decades.
  • Between 1935-2020, the Hagia Sophia was designated as a museum under the Presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
  • In 2020, the museum was re-designated as a mosque under Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
  • The Hagia Sophia was the most-visited attraction in Turkey in 2015 and 2019

Hagia Sophia History Over The Centuries

The Hagia Sophia has had a tumultuous past. After being marked for centuries as a cathedral exclusively for the east Roman Empire, the Ottomans attacked and took over Constantinople, effectively converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. After a brief stint of being designated as a museum, today it is officially a mosque. Here’s a quick look into what went down over the centuries.

hagia sophia history


The first Hagia Sophia structure was much smaller, located close to where the current one stands, built during the reign of Constantius II. The Hagia Eirene Church served as the main cathedral while the Great Church was still under construction. A majority of the current structure of Hagia Sophia was built under emperor Justinian I after the former church was destroyed in 532 C.E.

During the 13th Century, in Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia Church became a Roman Catholic Cathedral. After severe neglect and damages from earthquakes, the church was closed to the public and renovation orders were given in 1354.

The church was caught in the middle of conflicts between the western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The crowds began avoiding the church, believing it to be the haunt of demons. Several locals reported that they witnessed the Holy Spirit leave the church, just days before Constantinople fell to the Ottoman siege in 1453.

hagia sophia history


In May 1453, the Ottoman forces attacked, leading to the fall of Constantinople under the Byzantines. Under the Ottoman rule, the church was converted into the Hagia Sophia mosque, and the first Friday prayer was held on 1 June 1453.

Its treasures and architectural elements were looted and plundered. Several architectural elements were added to the Hagia Sophia subsequently to make it appear more like a mosque and less than a church; a mimbar, mihrab, a preacher's platform, and wooden balustrades were added, along with various other elements like medallions, during the numerous restoration and renovation projects over the next 480+ years of Ottoman rule. 

The southern courtyard houses the mausoleums of Murat III, Mehmet III, and Selim II. The baptistery of Hagia Sophia was converted into mausoleums of Mustafa I and Sultan Ibrahim.

In 1922, the Ottoman Empire fell and the Republic of Turkey was born under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

hagia sophia history


In 1935, Atatürk, as the founder and President of Turkey, declared that the Hagia Sophia would be converted into a museum. Large-scale renovation efforts were undertaken, where floor carpets were replaced, new design elements were added and mosaics were restored. 

Conservationists and historians have maintained a keen eye on the Hagia Sophia, considering its mosaics in particular as a source of insights into its rich history. It was declared a part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Historic Areas of Istanbul in 1985, which includes the other major historical buildings and locations of the city.

A major change brought about by Atatürk was to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a secular institution. Until 1991, all religious prayers and observations were prohibited within the premises of the Hagia Sophia Museum despite the pushback by various religious groups around Europe. 

In 2014, the Hagia Sophia attracted about 3.3 million visitors, making it the second-most visited structure in Turkey.

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