The Hagia Sophia is by far one of the most astounding beacons of art and architecture in history. Its walls have seen the reigns of some of the strongest empires of the past, and this rich political and religious history resonates to this day. Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia has been a precious gem in the world of architecture. Located in modern-day Istanbul, it is situated at the crossroads of two powerful empires, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. It is the grand representation of two great faiths, and now serves a secular purpose in educating its visitors about the rich history it contains.
Built during the Byzantine Empire in 306 AD, the Hagia Sophia was commissioned after Constantine I, the first Christian Emperor, became ruler and built his Eastern capital in modern day Turkey. Meaning “Holy Wisdom,” the Hagia Sophia served as a small church in the Byzantine Empire. The church was adorned with mosaics, paintings, carvings, and rich marble structures that came from great distances. A great dome spanning 102 feet was raised at the top, a striking reflection of the power and majesty of the empire. Elegant arched windows let in the light of the Sun in such a way that the interior was illuminated in an almost other-worldly manner. The Hagia Sophia was the greatest testament to the power of the Byzantines, and was also a token of the Christian faith.
In 1453, the Ottoman ruler Mehmet the Conqueror looked upon Constantinople and seized the great city after a 56 day siege. Upon entering the Hagia Sophia, the great leader bent to his knees in prostration within the walls of the church. Awestruck by its greatness, ordered that it be converted to a mosque, rather than be destroyed. They began restoring damages and added great Islamic elements to the building. In accordance with the Islamic ban on figural representation, the former mosaics of Christian emperors were plastered over, with the exception of the figure of the Virgin Mary in the apse. Breathtaking inscriptions in calligraphy were added in the main dome and on the panels, along with four minarets on the outside surrounding the structure. Most astounding of all, however, were the eight great roundels erected bearing the names of Allah, Muhammad, and of caliphs.
With the progress of Ottoman rule in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia was still blooming in its power and beauty. The Ottomans worked tirelessly to restore and buttress the delicate structures of the mosque. Over the years, sultans added more elements to the great structure, including a madrasa, lodge, a library, mausoleums, and a beautiful pool and fountain. With each addition, the Hagia Sophia was in every way a form of religious devotion, and its spirituality speaks to its visitors to this day.
Perhaps the most significant function of the Hagia Sophia is its use as a political and spiritual space. After the Islamic conquest, the Ottomans preserved several Byzantine relics, a sign of the peace and pluralism that is iconic of the Islamic tradition. Both the esoteric and secular were joined in harmony, and allowed for both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires to thrive. During its time as an Ottoman mosque, it was clear that the Hagia Sophia reflected the importance the Muslims put on the search for knowledge as they did in their military strength. It was the beacon of Islamic ideals to see the Divine and the material as inextricably connected. It was no question that the Hagia Sophia was the heart and essence of the Ottoman administration, and this manifested in every aspect of the mosque, from its administrative lodges, to its learning centers. It is far more than its beauty; it is pure ephemeral meaning . This balance of the holy and the secular was what made the Ottoman Empire one of the most powerful of its time, and its rich story of great leaders and faiths still echo within its walls today.