Building of Hagia Sophia Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The building of Hagia Sophia marked the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture and engineering, creating a cathedral whose design influenced future construction in both the Muslim and Christian worlds.

Summary of Event

When Justinian I Justinian I commissioned the construction of the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in 532, he envisioned the structure to be a symbol of both Christianity and his ability to civilize and rule much of the known world. The first church to occupy the site was built and dedicated by Constantine II on February 15, 360. It followed a basilica plan similar to Old Saint Peter’s in Rome. During the riots that followed the banishment of John Chrysostom, the structure burned on June 20, 404. Hagia Sophia was rebuilt by Theodosius the Younger and consecrated in 415. This second church was one of many architectural victims of the riots in January, 532, begun by the uniting of Hippodrome factions against the state. Through its failure, the Nika Nika riots (532) insurrection provided Justinian the opportunity to rebuild the imperial capital and usher in a new “golden age.” [kw]Building of Hagia Sophia (532-537) [kw]Hagia Sophia, Building of (532-537) Hagia Sophia Byzantine Empire;532-537: Building of Hagia Sophia[0100] Turkey;532-537: Building of Hagia Sophia[0100] Architecture;532-537: Building of Hagia Sophia[0100] Engineering;532-537: Building of Hagia Sophia[0100] Religion;532-537: Building of Hagia Sophia[0100] Justinian I Anthemius of Tralles Isidore of Miletus Isidore the Younger

As architects for the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, or “holy wisdom,” Justinian chose two scholars and master builders: Anthemius of Tralles Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus Isidore of Miletus . Anthemius, the principal designer, authored works on conic sections and reflectors. Isidore, who taught physics and stereometry at the universities of Alexandria and Constantinople, had collected and published the works of Archimedes of Syracuse and had written commentary on the Kamarika of Heron of Alexandria concerning the construction of vaults.

A nineteenth century depiction of the Hagia Sophia at Constantinople.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Early Christian structures were built using two essentially different forms: the central plan and the rectangular basilica, with its focal point at one end. Architecture;Byzantine The inspiration for the first type of structure came from such buildings as the Pantheon in Rome and the mausoleums of Diocletian in Split and resulted in centralized churches such as San Stefano Rotundo in Rome (468-483) and San Lorenzo in Milan (founded c. 350 and rebuilt in the fifth century). The rectangular church form dominated in the West, where attention focused on the altar and presbyterium. Its secular predecessors were the basilica facing the forum in Pompeii and the Basilica Julia in Rome. The Cathedral of Hagia Sophia represented a fusion of these forms employing a daring and complexity that had never before been attempted.

One of the major feats of construction was the erection of a dome on a square base. This dome rested on a crown formed by the conjuncture of the tops of four arches and four pendentives rising from four massive piers. The thrust of the dome to the east and west was taken up by two semidomes abutting the arches, and these in turn discharged it on vaults and piers still farther to the east and west. The lateral pressure to the north and south, on the other hand, was absorbed by the piers. This technical skill and balance of thrusts would be copied, but not equaled, for centuries. The construction began on February 23, 532, with two teams of workers with a combined force of ten thousand men. Following traditional Roman practice, Hagia Sophia was built of brick and mortar except for the eight main piers, which were made of large blocks of stone. The use of standardized materials in conjunction with a sense of competitiveness between the work crews enabled the structure to be completed on schedule for its dedication on December 27, 537. The rebuilt cathedral’s magnificent scale pleased Justinian to such a degree that he stated, “Glory to God who has deemed me worthy to complete such a work. O Solomon, I have surpassed thee.”

Worshipers enter the sanctuary by first passing through a forecourt and two vestibules, each 200 feet (61 meters) wide that fulfill the function of a narthex. Beyond is the large oval area 225 feet (68.5 meters) in length and 107 feet (32.5 meters) in width. Over the center of this open space, the architects placed a relatively shallow dome the same width as the nave, rising to a height of 160 feet (49 meters). Light for the church came through many apertures, including forty windows that puncture the great dome. The combination of a gold ceiling, multicolored marble columns, walls, and pavement and large areas decorated with mosaics gave the church’s interior a luminous effect.

The exaggerated thrust of the shallow dome, the haste with which it was constructed, and severe earthquakes in 553 and again in 557 contributed to a split in the arch to the east, so that on May 7, 558, part of the central dome collapsed. As both Anthemius and Isidore had died, the task of restoration was given to Isidore the Younger Isidore the Younger , who strengthened the arches to the north and south and filled in their spandrels with windowed walls. To diminish the lateral thrust of the central dome, he raised its center some 20 feet (6 meters). Isidore’s work was necessary and remarkably successful, but he was more an engineer than an artist. The resulting inner shell of the dome is no longer as brilliantly illuminated, as the walls beneath the north and south arches, even though pierced with windows, cut off the light that once filled the nave.


Following the completion of Isidore the Younger’s work, Hagia Sophia changed little even as the power of the Byzantine Empire waned. In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, and the Christian Orthodox cathedral became both a royal mosque and an architectural model for Muslim religious structures throughout the Ottoman Empire. Beginning in the second half of the fifteenth century, a dramatic shift took place in the architecture of the Islamic world as designers strove to create mosques equal to the empire their masters ruled.

Throughout its existence, Hagia Sophia has required repeated restorations to combat the effects of regional earthquakes. The work of repairing the structure in the years after the fall of Constantinople gave Muslim architects the opportunity to study the cathedral’s vaulting system. As early as 1463, the combination of a dome flanked by a semidome was used at the mosque of Mehmed II Mehmed II in Istanbul. By 1505, two semidomes were used in the construction of the city’s second imperial mosque of Bayezit II. It was the late sixteenth century architect Sinan, however, who sought to create works that directly competed with Justinian’s masterpiece in the mosques of Süleyman and Kilic Ali Pasha.

In the West, Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, the repository of much of the wealth of Constantinople stolen in the Fourth Crusade, bears the most direct relationship to Hagia Sophia. After Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque, access to the building became restricted for nonbelievers. Only in the twentieth century were Westerners allowed to study Hagia Sophia’s mosaics, which had long been covered for religious reasons. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, following World War I, funding for the structure’s preservation diminished. On February 1, 1935, Kemal Atatürk, president of Turkey, had Hagia Sophia converted into a museum in order to permit the restoration of both its interior and exterior. Although much of the ornament of Justinian’s cathedral is lost, what remains provides testament to both the artist and architectural skills of the Byzantine Empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Calkins, Robert G. Medieval Architecture in Western Europe: From A.D. 300 to 1500. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Explores the history of Western European architecture of the Middle Ages, including the buildings of Justinian. Illustrations, extensive bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinross, Lord. Hagia Sophia. New York: Newsweek, 1972. Provides a large collection of commentaries made by visitors to Hagia Sophia in the many centuries since its consecration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Krautheimer, Richard. Early Christian and Byzantine Architecture. 4th ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. Demonstrates Hagia Sophia’s importance in the history of architecture by illustrating church development in the first five hundred years of Christianity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macaulay, David. Building Big. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. Provides the younger reader with a chapter on the Hagia Sophia in the context of other large architectural works from around the world. Colored illustrations, maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mainstone, Rowland J. Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church. 1988. Reprint. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997. Using archaeological evidence, seeks to separate Justinian’s cathedral from later restoration and to demonstrate how it was used in religious ceremonies. Also explores the cathedral’s design, construction, character, influence, and changes over time. Includes architectural plans, elevations, and sections, as well as photographs, bibliography, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mango, Cyril. The Mosaics of Saint Sophia at Istanbul. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, 1962. The author is regularly cited as an expert of Hagia Sophia’s mosaics, which were an integral part of the building’s design.
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    xlink:type="simple">Mark, Robert, and Ahmet S. Cakmak. Hagia Sophia: From the Age of Justinian to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Examines the cathedral’s structure, design, and material through a series of essays by leading scholars. The work addresses Hagia Sophia’s influence on Muslim architects and how restoration and stabilization of the building has changed its design since the fall of Constantinople.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parkyn, Neil, ed. The Seventy Wonders of the Modern World: Fifteen Hundred Years of Extraordinary Feats of Engineering and Construction. London: Thames and Hudson, 2002. An introduction to the technology and aesthetics of great engineering and construction projects from around the world, including Hagia Sophia. Illustrations, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Procopius. Buildings. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960-1962. As the first historian to document Justinian’s reign, Procopius provided the only surviving account of Hagia Sophia’s construction. This work is volume 7 in the collected works of Procopius published as part of the Loeb Classical Library.

Categories: History