Constantine the Great who was the first emperor of Byzantium wanted to build a great church after he had announced Christianity as the official religion of the empire. However, the completion of this building took many years to finish, and unfortunately, it didn’t happen during the first emperor’s reign. Thanks to 24 years’ ceaseless efforts, the building was complete at last. The church was consecrated on 15 February 360, during the reign of the emperor Constantius II (r. 337–361).
According to some narrations, this first church was erected over an ancient temple. Although we don’t have any proof to justify this claim, we know that the emperor Constantius had constructed the Great Church alongside that called Irene.
The church itself is known to have had a conventional Roman basilica style. It had timber roof and was likely preceded by an atrium. Even this archaic model of the first church was the most amazing building of its time. The Patriarch of Constantinople John Chrysostom came into a conflict with Empress Aelia Eudoxia and was sent into exile on 20 June 404. During the subsequent riots, this first church was largely burnt down.
The Second Hagia Sophia
A second church on the site was ordered by Theodosius II who inaugurated it on 10 October 415. The church was almost at the same spot about 2 meters away from the original one.
The basilica which had the same features as the previous burnt one was built by architect Rufinus. Unfortunately, the fate of this building wasn’t much different. As the fire started during the tumult of the Nika Revolt which had begun nearby, and the second Hagia Sophia was burnt to the ground on 13–14 January 532.
At the western end, surviving stone fragments of the show there was vaulting which was thought to be part of the western entrance of the church itself.
You can see fragments such as elaborate carvings, the portico embellished with mosaics and pillars which still fascinate the visitors. These surviving pieces once belonged to the carved gable end from the center of the western facade. Fragments of a frieze of reliefs with 12 lambs represent the 12 apostles.
The excavations showed that the surviving stone fragments of the second church were 2 meters below the current structure. It’s unknown the exact length of the second church but it was 60m wide.
The Third Hagia Sophia ( Current Structure)
On 23 February 532, only a few weeks after the destruction of the second basilica, Emperor Justinian I decided to build a third and entirely different basilica, larger and more majestic than its predecessors. It was designed by mathematician Anthemius of Tralles, and famous physician Isidore of Miletus by the order of the emperor.
There have been many legends about the construction of the current structure of Hagia Sophia which is also known as the Church of Justinian. One of them goes like this: Emperor Justinian disliked preliminary drafts of the building prepared by architects. One day Isidore of Miletus fell asleep while trying to draw the sketches of the church. When he finally woke up in the morning, he found the complete draft plan of Hagia Sophia in front of him. To much surprise, the draft was a success and by Justinian’s order, the church was built according to this final draft.
According to another legend, Isidore of Miletus saw the draft of the church in his dream and draw it as it was.
The construction materials of the third church (Hagia Sophia) were brought from different sacred temples of that time. With the help of these prepared blocks, the construction was completed faster than usual. In the construction of the church, some ready building materials such as columns from Artemis Temple in Ephesus, Heliopolis from the temple of Ra-Atum in ancient Egypt, and Baalbek in Lebanon were used. The colorful porphyries which were used in the surfacing of the walls and
columns were from different regions. For instance, the red one was from Egypt, the green one was from Greece, the white marble was from Marmara Island, the yellow stone was from Syria and lastly, the black stone was originated from Istanbul. Also, many stones from different provinces of Anatolia were used in the construction of this church. It’s estimated that ten thousand men worked in this construction and after completion of the building, the church has become the current structure.
Construction of the church began in 532 but it was completed only in December 537. It was inaugurated by the Emperor Justinian and patriarch Eutychius. Hagia Sophia was the greatest church of its time which even surpassed the temple of Suleiman and that’s why it’s claimed that after completion of the church the emperor Justinian said that ” O Süleiman, ı beat you.”
The last completed version of the church is the current structure however it has been undergone many restorations throughout the 1500 years.
The main dome collapsed due to several earthquakes then was refurbished after many minor earthquakes and fires. The building remained closed during these restorations.
When Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Constantinapolis, Hagia Sophia was in ruin. Once church Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and it underwent a thorough cleaning and restoration. A light minaret made of brick was erected. Later on, the building was extensively strengthened with the addition of structural supports to its exterior by Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan, who was also an earthquake engineer.
Among 24 retaining walls of the building, some were constructed during the Ottoman period while others during the Byzantium era.In addition to strengthening the historic Byzantine structure, Sinan built the two additional large minarets at the western end of the building, the original sultan’s lodge and the türbe (mausoleum) of Selim II (to the southeast of the building.)
One of the most famous reatoration of the Hagia Sophia was ordered by Sultan Abdulmejid I and completed under the supervision of the Swiss-Italian architect brothers Gaspare and Guiseppe Fossati.