The Haghia Sophia (Ayasofya) is a museum, former place of worship, and renowned architectural masterpiece located in Istanbul, Turkey. It was built, destroyed, and rebuilt from 360 - 537 C.E. During this period, Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire (which is also referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire). After the fall of Rome, Istanbul became the center of the Christian world, and the Hagia Sophia became the official Empire Church where the rulers of the Eastern Roman Empire were crowned.

The structure was used as a church for over 900 years. After the Ottomans conquered conquered Istanbul in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted into mosque, and used by muslim worshippers for over 480 years. Under the orders of Turkey’s President Atatürk, the building became a museum in 1935.

Haghia Sofia external viewThe original church was built in the fourth century C.E. by Emperor Constantine, the first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity. The building, which was named Megale Ekklesia (Big Church), was a basilica topped with a wooden roof. It was dedicated in 360, and damaged by fire in a riot in 404. A second church was reconstructed by Emperor Theodosios II in 415. This building was also damaged by riots, and demolished in 532.

The structure that stands today was ordered by Emperor Justinian, and built by then-prominent architects Isidoros (Milet) and Anthemios (Tralles). This third incarnation combined the previous basilica layouts with a central dome plan. Construction likely began in 532, and was completed in five years. The church was dedicated on December 27, 537.

Haghia Sofia internal viewThe current structure is 270 feet [82 meters] long and 240 feet [73 meters] wide. The massive weight of the domed roof presented significant engineering challenges, and the first dome collapsed in 558. It was rebuilt in 562. The current building has a complex array of vaults and half-domes that lessen the weight of the roof, and also allow sunlight to enter the structure. The dome itself is 108 feet [33 meters] wide. At its highest point, it towers roughly 180 feet [55 meters] above the ground.

The building’s interior is ornately decorated. Many of the walls are blanketed with vibrant mosaics made with silver, gold, and colorful stones. Other sections of the structure are lined with marble. The emperor and empress attended mass in the imperial section of the upper-level gallery.

Some of the mosaics depicting Christ, the saints, and other individuals were destroyed in the eighth and ninth centuries, during the Iconoclastic movement that barred of the use of figural images. Other Christian images were plastered over by the Ottomans. Museum officials would like to restore the images once they are confident they can do so without damaging them. At more than 200 feet (60 meters) tall, the four minarets the Ottomans added to the structure are among the tallest ever constructed.

The massive structure is a remarkable architectural achievement, particularly for the period in which it was built. Its beauty and rich history draw millions of visitors from around the globe each year.

Image credits:
External view: Arild Vågen. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Internal view: Photo credit: Michael Day (Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons