Hagia Sophia is a former Christian patriarchal basilica (church), later an imperial mosque, and now a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi in Turkish). From the date of its construction in 537, it was used as a church for 916 years but, following the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1453, it was converted into mosque. Then it converted into a museum in 1935. Its name comes from Ἁγία Σοφία in Greek, meaning, “Holy Wisdom”; Latin: Sancta Sophia or Sancta Sapientia; Turkish: Ayasofya.
The church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God, the Logos (a name or title of Jesus Christ), the second person of the Holy Trinity.
The building is an important place in the art world with its architecture, grandness, size and functionality. It actually has been constructed three times in the same location. When it was first built, it was named Megale Ekklesia (Big Church); however, after the fifth century, it was referred to as the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). The church was the place in which rulers were crowned, and it was also the biggest operational cathedral in the city throughout the Byzantine period.
The first church was constructed by Emperor Konstantios (337-361) in 360. The first church was covered with a wooden roof and expanded vertically (basilica) yet was burned down after the public riot that took place in 404 as a result of the disagreements between Emperor Arkadios’ (395-408) wife empress Eudoksia and Istanbul’s patriarch Ioannes Chrysostomos, who was exiled. The patriarch’s mosaic portrait can still be viewed at the tymphanon wall located in the northern part of the church. No remains have been recovered from the first church; however, the bricks found in the museum storage branded “Megale Ekklesia” are predicted to belong to the first construction.
The second church was reconstructed by Emperor Theodosios II (408-450) in 415. This basilical structure is known to contain five naves and a monumental entrance; it is also covered by a wooden roof.
The church was demolished in January 13, 532, after the public riot (Nika revolts) that took place during the fifth year of Emperor Justinianos’ reign (527-565), when the ‘blues’ who represented the aristocrats, and the ‘greens’ who represented the tradesman and merchants in the society, collaborated against the Empire.
Remains found during the excavations led by A. M Scheinder of the Istanbul German Archeology Institute, 2 meters below ground level, include steps belonging to the Propylon (monumental door), column bases and pieces with lamb embossings that represent the 12 apostles. In addition, other architectural pieces that belong to the monumental entrance can be seen in the west garden.
The current structure was constructed by Isidoros (Milet) and Anthemios (Tralles), who were renowned architects of their time, by Emperor Justinianos’s (527-565) orders. Information from historian Prokopios states that the construction that began on February 23, 532, was completed in a short period of five years and the church was opened to worship with a ceremony on December 27, 537. Resources show that on the opening day of the Hagia Sophia, Emperor Justinianos entered the temple and said, “My Lord, thank you for giving me chance to create such a worshiping place,” and followed with the words “Suleiman, I beat you,” referring to Suleiman’s temple in Jerusalem.