Hagia Sophia - Istanbul
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Hagia Sophia

large dome
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (500s AD)

The Roman emperor Constantius II built a big church next to the imperial palace in Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the 300s AD, but people burned it down in riots in 404. Pulcheria soon had the church rebuilt, but rioters burned it down again during the Nike Riots of 532. So it fell to the emperor Justinian to rebuild the church a third time. He chose Isidore of Miletus as the architect.

Isidore built Hagia Sophia to be a really exciting new architectural achievement, with a stupendous dome over the nave, surrounded by smaller half-domes. Like other buildings of the Early Middle Ages, the inside was covered with mosaics.

golden mosaics and a dome
Interior of Hagia Sophia

Justinian dedicated the new church in December 537, only six years after the old church burned down. He dedicated it to Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia in Greek), as the third part of the Trinity, with God and Jesus.

Istanbul has a lot of earthquakes, and they have been a big problem for Hagia Sophia. Isidore's dome collapsed in an earthquake only 16 years after it was built, in 553. Isidore's nephew, also an architect and also named Isidore, rebuilt the dome a little higher and with better engineering, and this is the dome we see today. He designed a new system to transition from the round dome to the square walls of the church, using pendentives: triangular transition pieces. (The Pantheon dome had avoided this problem by being a round building.) Isidore the Younger also added ribs to the dome, to channel the weight to the right parts of the walls. However, some sections of this dome also collapsed, and were rebuilt later.

In 1453, when the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II captured Constantinople, he changed Hagia Sophia into a mosque and added four minarets. Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1931, when Ataturk and the new Republic of Turkey converted Hagia Sophia into a museum (as the French did with their churches in their Revolution).

Learn by doing: build a dome in Minecraft or in Lego.
More about Justinian

Bibliography and further reading about Hagia Sophia:

More medieval architecture
More about the Middle Ages
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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