The Hagia Sophia as seen from The Sea of Marmara during my visit to Istanbul
On this day in 532, Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered that a new, grand cathedral was to be built in Constantinople. The previous church had been attacked and burned to the ground not two weeks before. Justinian was determined that the replacement—to be called Hagia Sophia—would be more spectacular than any other structure ever built. 10,000 men worked on it for nearly six years, and building materials were brought-in from the far reaches of the Byzantine Empire: marble columns from Ephesus, porphyry from Egypt, green marble from Thessaly (modern-day Greece), yellow stone from Syria, and black stone from Bosphorus. The cathedral was inaugurated in 537 and set a new standard for churches, monumental architecture, and, indeed, architecture itself.
The name is derived from the Greek: “The Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God.” In Turkish it is called “Ayasofya.” For nearly a thousand years, it was the greatest church in Orthodox Christendom, the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Coronations and other state events were held here and it was acknowledged as a haven for sanctuary from the law. For half a century it was a Roman Catholic church.
In 1453, Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II seized Constantinople and converted the church into a Mosque. Minarets were added and Christian artworks were removed, destroyed, or covered-up. Thankfully, the mosaics (of Jesus, Mary and the Saints) were only plastered-over, thus preserving them for nearly five centuries.
In 1931, the mosque was closed and re-opened in 1935 as a museum.
Two years ago, I had the good fortune to visit the beautiful city of Istanbul (as it is now called) and the Hagia Sophia. A customer of mine from New York (who lives half of the year in Istanbul) gave me a guided tour of her adopted city, including the famous cathedral/mosque/museum. It is astounding to stand at the center of a (nearly) 1500 year old building—one so monumental, rich, and historically significant. The Hagia Sophia has seen a lot of history. It is a thrill to spend a day with her!