Hagia Sophia is a museum in Istanbul, Turkey, that was formerly a Greek Orthodox Church, and then a mosque. It is one of the most famous and popular tourist attractions in the Middle East.

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The first church on the site was constructed in 360AD under the orders of the Byzantine emperor Constantius II. This building burnt down during riots in AD 404, and was replaced by a new church ordered by emperor Theodosius II. A few marble reliefs are all that remains of this second iteration.

The current basilica was built in 532 AD by then emperor Justinian I. Isidore of Melitus was the architect. The building was completed in slightly under six years, with over ten thousand builders working on it, and materials being transported in from all over the Mediterranean.

The church became the seat of the patriarch of Constantinople (later Instanbul), and was the site where many important imperial events were held, including coronations.

The dome of the basilica collapsed during an earthquake in 558, and had to be completely redesigned. Several times over the next 700 years, earthquakes destroyed and damaged portions of the buildings, leading it to be closed for a number of extended periods.

In 1453, Ottomans laid seige to Constantinople and captured it. The Sultan ordered that it should be converted into a mosque right away, and efforts to reverse the damage caused during the invasion began swiftly after. Aya Sofya, as it was known then, was designated the first imperial mosque of Istanbul.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who transformed Turkey into a secular Western-oriented Republic in 1935, had the mosque converted into a museum. Although the building was long barred from being used for religious ceremonies, there have been calls in recent years for it to be converted back into a mosque. In March 2018, the current president of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan read our a verse from the Koran in the building.

Architecture of the Hagia Sophia

The building is fundamentally a great example of Byzantine architecture, perhaps the finest in the world. The interior is filled with mosaics and paintings of both high artistic and archaeological value.

The inside space is large and complicated. There is a central nave, surrounded by a large number of window arches, with the near 200 foot high elliptic dome in the centre.

The dome has been especially noted by enthusiasts of architecture. Until the construction of St Peter’s basilica in Rome, it was the largest dome in the world. It is unusually flat for a dome with such a large diameter. This flat shape, while visually impressive, have caused weight issues that have plagued the building from its construction.