Why Is Hagia Sophia Considered The Epitome Of Byzantine Architecture

A Glance At Hagia Sophia’s Legacy In World History

Hagia Sophia has been an iconic landmark in Istanbul, Turkey since its completion in 537. For hundreds of years, it has been widely renowned as “the epitome of Byzantine architecture” and one of the greatest monuments in world history. Its classical Ottoman architecture, iconic minarets and awe-inspiring mosaics have captivated visitors and art-lovers for generations.

One of the defining features of the Hagia Sophia is its usage of a vast supporting structure of brick and mortar, though the primary resource behind its success has been its architectural design. The great dome measures at an impressive 105ft tall and spans nearly a 150ft. Below, the church is supported by in total of 40 columns and countless buttresses, allowing the structure’s overall shape to remain unaltered throughout its centuries-long history.

Due to its impressive structural repertoire, Hagia Sophia is often regarded highly by experts in the fields of architecture, engineering and structural design. Dr. Afsaneh Nahavandi, professor of architecture claims its prevalence in world history is in large part due to its “innovative use of materials and incredible blend of aesthetic and functional designs.” Others note that the geographical positioning of the Hagia Sophia — its close proximity to rivers which provided the building with a continuous influx of materials and resources — played another critical role in its success.

The beauty of Hagia Sophia parallels the beauty and expanse of its influence throughout world history. It has acted as both a sacred Christian temple and a prominent Mosque. From 1312 to 1453, it served as one of the premier churches of Orthodox Christianity. During the latter portion of consecrated life, however, Hagia Sophia had been increasingly converted into a mosque, simply to remain relevant throughout the Islamification of what is now known as Istanbul. Since 1935, the building has been a museum and a popular tourist attraction, allowing tens-of-thousands of people each day to get a glimpse of the majestic structure and its incredible art and mosaics.

The Art of Hagia Sophia

The singularly most defining feature of the Hagia Sophia is the absolutely stunning collection of art expressions, mosaics and decorations embedded in its walls. Many of the Mosaics date back to the 12th century and were designed to tell a compelling narrative about the building’s dominant religion at the time — Orthodox Christianity. These expressions embodied figures such as Emperor Justinian I and celebrated the present life and stories of Jesus Christ, such as his baptism, miracles and ascension.

The mosaics also have been seen to play an important role in the development of subsequent art, contributing to the grandeur of churches throughout the region over the centuries. In the 15th century, many mosaics and decorations were destroyed, as architects and builders sought to restructure the building in accordance with Islamic tradition. Mosaics such as the Virgin Mary were replaced by a crescent moon, and iconic Jesus images were plastered with Arabic calligraphy, though some of the original pieces remain and can still be seen today.

Hagia Sophia’s Impact On Society

The most significant and perhaps longstanding impact of Hagia Sophia’s legacy remains in the economic sphere. As the building has a been designated a World Heritage Site, it has remained a popular tourist hotspot over the years, attracting over 3 million tourists from around the world each year. This means the building plays an equally important role as both a tourist attraction and major source of revenue for the Turkish economy. Even more, its beauty, legacy and importance have led to it being featured on many different Turkish coins, stamps and even postcards, further solidifying its prevalence around the world.

Hagia Sophia has been a site of much competition and controversy over the past few years. Many political groups have questioned the status and purpose of the building, asking whether or not it is willing to fully honor both its Islamic and Christian past and whether or not it should continue to stand as an international monument. Regardless, many agree that the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of an immense amount of fundamental concepts present in both Eastern and Western history and is, to this day, a hugely important structure in art, architecture, design and engineering.

The Construction Of Hagia Sophia

The construction process of the Hagia Sophia spanned over 5 years, beginning in 532. Emperor Justinian commissioned the project be lead by two brilliant Byzantine architects — Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Highly renowned for their ingenuity and innovation, the duo crafted an expansive complex of towers, walls and domes, adhered by nearly 40 external buttresses. The role of these buttresses was not just to support the structure’s foundation but to also allow for an immense degree of architectural variations and geometric contours throughout the building. The overall shape of the building itself is said to be reminiscent of traditional Greek cross, though it’s primary shape has been debated for centuries.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia is just as impressive and awe-inspiring boasting incredibly detailed statues, mosaics, buttresses and frescoes. From a structural perspective, its ceilings and walls are also quite extraordinary. In order to withstand the distribution of weight to its roof and walls, the inner mechanics of the building were composed of stones. This allowed the walls to remain strong and resistant to seismic activity.

While the construction period didn’t come without its share of headaches, delays and missteps, the project as a whole was a huge success main due to the brilliance of its architects and the use of materials and resources available in Istanbul.

Understanding The Byzantine Architects

Anthemius and Isidorus were widely recognized as two of the most talented architects of their era. Born in Asia Minor, they both received their formal training in the Byzantine. Their names were so widely venerated during their lifetime; a large-scale church was even built and named after Anthemius in Istanbul.

The late 5th century was a critical period in architectural history — it was the first time engineers were comfortable enough to attempt a double dome structure. This brave new concept allowed architects to not just design a structure with two large domes, but an unlimited number of smaller ones. Even more, the double dome allowed the Hagia Sophia to expand its height and length to unprecedented levels.

The ingenuity didn’t stop there either. Taking inspiration from the low span ceilings of Persian and Arab structures, Anthemius and Isodorus aimed to build a structure with a central dome covering the entire building. The concept was both incredibly ambitious and revolutionary, and to this day it serves to be a hallmark of Byzantine architecture. Many historians say the concepts employed in the construction of the Hagia Sophia changed the face of architectural design.

The Future Of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia has been predominantly used as a museum since 1935, though its future status still remains somewhat unclear. In 2013, an Islamic prayer recited inside the museum sparked renewed controversy between religious and political groups alike wondering if the site will revert more extensively to a religious building rather than a museum and symbol of world heritage. For now, the Hagia Sophia mostly stands as a testament to the immense talents of its architects, as well as its boldness and commitment to honoring world religions, cultures and history.

Many experts are also hoping to see a shift in focus at the Hagia Sophia. Architectural expert Norton Aldermann and other leaders hope to draw more focus to the “efficiency and effectiveness of the building itself”, looking to the site as both a fantastic example of effective engineering and as a tribute to the citizens of Istanbul and their centuries-old legacy.

The Longlasting Legacy Of Hagia Sophia

Not only does Hagia Sophia stand as clear symbol of Constantinople’s rise to power and its deep religious tradition, but its wide range of influences has made a lasting impact on the greater region. Its usage of bricks and mortar and its mixed styles of decoration have become standard features of architecture and are widely replicated in many other churches and mosques.

Even in a more technological era — a time when many of the world’s age-old structures are being rebuilt with stronger materials such as steel and concrete — there remains something eerily quite timeless about the Hagia Sophia. Its unique blend of design, materials and overall engineering has lasted throughout the centuries and could very well stand the test of time for thousands of years more. This sort of resilience and power has come to define its greatness, making Hagia Sophia the epitome of Byzantine architecture.

Anita Johnson is an award-winning author and editor with over 15 years of experience in the fields of architecture, design, and urbanism. She has contributed articles and reviews to a variety of print and online publications on topics related to culture, art, architecture, and design from the late 19th century to the present day. Johnson's deep interest in these topics has informed both her writing and curatorial practice as she seeks to connect readers to the built environment around them.

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