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Study of Hagia Sofia - Istanbul, Turkey

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Drawing of Hagia Sofia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey © Alec Boreham
Drawing of Hagia Sofia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey © Alec Boreham

Hagia Sofia is one of the most famous Byzantine buildings in the world, its name means "divine wisdom' and was constructed between 532 and 537 AD.

It was built on the site of a ruined basilican church and was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian to serve as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, however its religious identity has changed twice in its lifetime. In 1204 it became a Roman Catholic Cathedral under the Latin Empire and then in 1453 its role and aesthetics changed when it acquired 4 minarets and became an Ottoman Mosque. It was finally opened as a museum in 1935 where its role remains the same to the present day, although there has been recent talk to turn it back into a working Mosque, although to this date this has not yet transpired.

Photo of the Hagia Sofia Museum across the Bosporus
Photo of the Hagia Sofia Museum across the Bosporus

The buildings most striking feature is its 31.7 meter diameter dome. Its construction is unique in that it sits on a square base, combining the secular power of a dome and the spirituality of a basilican designed church.

The main dome is supported east and west by two semi domes each in turn with two semi supporting domes.

Its original construction was completed in only five years, however its strength and resilience was tested when an earthquake in 558 caused part of the dome to collapse. This was later revealed to have been caused by too much mortar being used instead of brick, causing the walls supporting the dome to bow outwards, with the earthquake being the catalyst for its failure.

Repair and reconstruction five years later included a raise of the dome of six metres so that lateral forces would be less and the domes weight would be transferred more easily down the supporting walls.

Forty ribs were also incorporated that extend from the edge of the dome to the supporting base allowing structural load to transmit between the windows and the pendentives (constructional device permitting the placing of a circular dome over a square room).


The interior of the building has been decorated and altered many times in accordance with the change in its religious use. When the building was converted into a museum in 1935, plaster was removed from its interior walls revealing many marble decorations and mosaics, many of them showing patterns of foliage and crosses.

Decorative tiles found in the Hagia Sofia Museum
These decorative tiles were found in the vaults of Hagia Sofia during the time it was being converted into a museum in the 1930s
Decorative tiles found in the Hagia Sofia Museum
Further tiles found, decorating supporting walls, most likely from the Justinian period when the building was originally commissioned
Decorative tiles found in the Hagia Sofia Museum
Ceiling detail showing floral motives with tulip details

The interior has two floors, the ground entrance and the gallery above, thought to have been used for segregation of worshipers by sex, social class and religious standing. The walls have been decorated with the use of huge marble slabs with flowing pigmentation that possibly is there to mimic the flowing of the bosporus sea.

Interior photo of the Hagia Sofia Museum
Interior shot of Hagia Sofia showing the two tiers for worshipers and the great dome with 40 windows to let in light to the centre of the building

At various times during the buildings life, various architects have been requested to reinforce the buildings structure including the great Ottoman Architect Mimar Sinan, who was also an earthquake engineer, Sinan built two further minarets at the west end of the building in 1576-7

In 1717, much of the plaster and interior was renovated, preserving a lot of the tiles that would have been in danger of being lost

Again in 1847 more renovation was completed and tiling on the first floor was cleaned and repaired. Much of the existing chandeliers were replaced with new ones and new gigantic circular framed gold discs were installed and inscribed with the words Allah and Mohammed

Interior shot looking upwards of the Hagia Sofia Museum © Alec Boreham
View of the chandeliers that were installed in 1847 looking up towards the great dome

This extraordinary building stands as a reminder of what humanity can do together if a collective agreed goal is identified and worked towards with passion and fortitude.


For many years I have had a connection and a love of the city of Istanbul. Its rich history, strategic geographical position between Europe and the Middle East and mix of ancient Ottoman Culture and modern life has always had an attraction and fascination for me.

Hagia Sofia for me represents all that is wondrous about Istanbul. When I first visited this historic building back in 2011 nothing that I had read or seen online could prepare me for the impact that it had on me when I was actually physically there.

The entrance and walkways that lead to the main hall show their age and history though the millions of footsteps from visitors, worshipers and builders that have worn down the marble slabs that have ventured into the interior of this great building.

For me when you finally enter the great hall and see the dome of Hagia Sofia for the first time, it is something that had a profound effect upon me, its sheer size and expanse of internal space in such an ancient building was an extraordinary experience. If you have visited St Pauls Cathedral and thought the central internal space underneath Sir Christopher Wrens dome was a huge space, think again.

To achieve and complete the construction of one of the largest masonry domes in the world, the record lasted for 873 years, is quite mind blowing and for it to have been completed at a time when computer aided design or modern building technique existed is also extraordinary.

If there is one place that you should visit in the world, it is here, you wont be disappointed.

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