Over 1.5 million people flock to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, making it Turkey’s second-most visited landmark. It’s one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture in the world too, with its abundant mosaics, bronze doors, marbled floors and impressive stone inlays. It’s stood for over 1,500 years, so you’d be right to think it’s got a few stories to tell. Curious about this ancient sight? Here’s a handful of interesting facts about Hagia Sophia that we’ll wager you might not have heard before.
Interesting Facts about Hagia Sophia
1. Hagia Sophia started life as a church
Hagia Sophia started life as a church, likely ordered by Constantine I in 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple. His son, Constantius II, consecrated the church in 306. This original wooden structure burned down during riots in 404 CE. Constans I rebuilt and enlarged the building, and Theodosius II inaugurated the church in 415 CE. It didn’t last very long though – fires during the Nika Revolt in 532 CE burnt the second Hagia Sophia.
No one wanted to give up on the church though. A few weeks after it burned, Justinian I inaugurated a third, totally new basilica. This was to be larger and more majestic than anything ever seen before. Two architects worked on the construction and in the end it only took six years to complete it. An earthquake caused some damage but for the most part, the structure you see today is the same. Hagia Sophia remained a church for over 1,000 years.
2. Then it became a mosque for 500 years
After centuries of sieges, raids and crusades, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Sultan Murad II renamed the city Istanbul and authorized the looting of the church. By this time, the church was in a dilapidated state, with doors falling off the hinges and broken windows. His successor, Mehmed II restored the building and converted it into a mosque. He attended the first Friday prayer here in June 1453 and the building became the first imperial mosque of Istanbul.
Mehmed II added features such as the wooden minaret (a special tower used for the summons to prayer), the great chandelier, a mihrab and a minbar pulpit. Hagia remained a mosque for 500 years, until 1934.
3. And then it became a museum
The first Turkish president and founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, secularized Hagia Sophia and converted it into a museum. For decades, authorities prohibited worship here. Then, in 1991, the Turkish government allocated a small pavilion in the museum as a prayer room. In 2013, they reintroduced the call to prayer from the museum’s minaret.
In 2007, the Greek-American politician Chris Spirou launched the Free Agia Sophia Council of America, a US-based organization that championed restoring the building to its original function as a Christian church. Over the next decade, several campaigns emerged calling for it to become a mosque again. In 2016, Hagia Sophia hosted the first Muslim prayers in over 85 years. After years of campaigning and disputes, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sanctioned the conversion of the building back into a mosque.
4. Hagia Sophia wasn’t always its name
This fact is less surprising once you’ve heard the history of Hagia Sophia. The complex was first known as ‘The Great Church’ due to its sprawling size. The second church, built in the fifth century, rebranded as Hagia Sophia, which means ‘Holy Wisdom’ in Greek. Then, after the Ottoman conquest, it became Ayasofya. Today, it’s also known as Ayasofya Müzesi or the Holy Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque.
5. People believe it has healing powers
One of Hagia Sophia’s impressive 107 columns is known as the ‘wishing column, the ‘perspiring column’ and the ‘sweating column’. The column, which stands in the northwest section of the complex, is partially covered in bronze and damp to touch. There’s a whole in the middle of it which is said to have the blessing of St. Gregory. Legend has it that if you poke your finger through and your finger emerges wet, your wishes will come true and you’ll be cured of any illness.
6. It’s built from one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World
To fortify Hagia Sophia, builders used columns from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Also known as the Temple of Diana, the ancient temple was rebuilt twice and ruined in 401AD. Only the foundations remain today. They extracted other materials from across the Byzantine Empire too, such as green marble from Thessaly and yellow stone from Syria.
7. It’s an architectural marvel
Hagia Sophia was built to impress – and many neo-Byzantine and Ottoman mosques built since were modelled on it. Its sheer size, sumptuous interiors and intricate mosaic-lined walls are breathtaking, but its dome really steals the show. Soaring 55.6 metres high and sweeping 31.24 metres wide, a series of small domes, arcades and arches support the tremendous weight of the dome. It’s not the original though, in 558 CE the original dome collapsed following an earthquake. The dome has since inspired numerous buildings, including the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace.
When the Byzantine church was constructed, it would have been decorated with thousands of mosaics and frescos depicting biblical scenes and Byzantine Emporers. The Ottoman conquest brought with it a long period of iconoclasm, which means ‘image breaking’, banning the use of religious images. The Ottomans destroyed many of the images, but they did whitewash and plaster over a few of them. It was only in 1930, when excavations began, that the ancient images and frescoes re-appeared.