Unraveling the Wonders: 16 Surprising Hagia Sophia Facts

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Hagia Sophia isn’t just any old building – it is a shining gem from the Byzantine Empire. This architectural chameleon is a testament to Istanbul’s rich history. Through the ages, it’s seen empires come and go, felt earth shakes, and survived the dramas and triumphs of days long gone. But guess what? Some mind-blowing facts about Hagia Sophia will totally surprise you. 

Hagia Sophia facts: Prepare to be blown away by some fascinating facts about Hagia Sophia!

Hagia Sophia has seen more drama than your favourite Netflix series. Prepare to be blown away by some fascinating facts about Hagia Sophia!

 

Fascinating Hagia Sophia facts

Hagia Sophia fun facts

After the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great accepted Christianity as a legitimate faith in the 4th century, the construction of the largest churches began in the empire. Hagia Sophia, one of the most significant symbols of Istanbul, was built as a cathedral for Constantinople, the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire.

 

1. Built three times

Hagia Sophia facts - built 3 times

First off, let us tell you a tale of three constructions. Hagia Sophia wasn’t just constructed once and left alone to enjoy its glory. The church you see today is actually not first, not second, but the third building, built on the same site. 

 

Emperor Constantine II erected the first church, the so-called Great Church, in the 4th century. It lasted only 44 years and burned to the ground. After that, Emperor Theodosius II built a new temple on the same site – it was also wiped out a hundred years later. Unfortunately, the first two wooden versions were classic fire victims during riots. But, as they say, the third time’s a charm, right?

Emperor Justinian I started the construction of a third, much larger basilica in the 6th century, only a few weeks after the destruction of the second basilica. And boy, did he nail it!

DID YOU KNOW?

The remains of the Theodosian Church lie next to one of the entrances.

The remains of the Theodosian Hagia Sophia lie next to one of the entrances to Hagia Sophia.

 

2. The brains behind the beauty of Hagia Sophia were two Byzantine architects.

The brains behind this beauty were the two Byzantine architects. They were also mathematicians, geometers and engineers.

Justinian wanted something grand: something that would make jaws drop, like the largest temple of Christianity. But for that, he couldn’t just draw a few sketches and hope for the best, right?

 

The Eastern Roman emperor assigned this project to two masterminds: Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus. These two weren’t just your average builders; they were geniuses responsible for creating an architectural marvel. Together, they combined their expertise in mathematics, geometry and engineering. And boy, did they deliver! They didn’t just design a church but also challenged gravity and architectural norms.

 

3. Hagia Sophia facts: Built surprisingly quickly

Built surprisingly quickly

You know what they say: Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Hagia Sophia!

 

How long did it take for these masterminds to turn Justinian’s dream into a reality? The two wizards, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, built this large-scale church in an unexpectedly short time. Brace yourself: it took them just 5 years, 10 months and 4 days of blood, sweat, and maybe a few tears, too. Yes, you heard that right: In just a half-decade, from 532 to 537 AD, Hagia Sophia went from a bunch of rocks to an architectural wonder. This was particularly unusual for this period because modern construction machinery wasn’t in use.

But here’s the kicker: It wasn’t just Justinian and a handful of labourers working on this epic structure. Up to 10,000 people worked on its construction daily, getting their hands dirty to turn Justinian’s vision into a reality.

 

4. How much did it cost Justinian to build Hagia Sophia?

Justinian was not afraid to invest in making a statement with his grand cathedral in Constantinople.

Justinian was not afraid to invest in making a statement with his grand cathedral in Constantinople.  

 

The emperor didn’t simply toss a few coins; he went all out. According to historical records and Wikipedia, Justinian splashed out ”20,000 pounds of gold’ (approximately 9 tonnes of gold) to finance this monumental project. He certainly wasn’t shy to show off his wealth and power!

 

5. Columns and marble brought from ancient sites

Columns and marble brought from ancient sites Egypt, Turkey and Baalbek in Lebanon. They even used columns from one of the seven ancient wonders of the world: the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Impressive marble slabs add a touch of luxury and sophistication to every corner of Hagia Sophia.

 

Justinian didn’t just settle any old material and rocks – he wanted the best of the best! So, where did he get all that fancy marble and those pretty columns? Justinian was all about sustainable sourcing and eco-friendly construction. Some of those marble pieces and columns came from all corners of the empire. 

140 monolithic columns came from ancient sites in Egypt, Turkey and Baalbek in Lebanon. He even used columns from one of the seven ancient wonders of the world: the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.

Imagine the journey of these massive blocks of marble, which they took just to become part of Hagia Sophia. 

 

140 monolithic columns came from ancient sites in Egypt, Turkey and Baalbek in Lebanon. He even used  8 green columns from one of the seven ancient wonders of the world: the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. And the marble? Justinian didn’t just settle for one type of marble. He spiced things up and created a marble masterpiece. Justinian selected the finest, rare and exotic marble with different colours and variety. So, next time you are at Hagia Sophia, take a moment to appreciate the marble marvels around you.

 

6. Interesting names

Hagia Sophia Istanbul

Here’s the fun twist: Hagia Sophia didn’t always go by that name – the site actually hosted two previous churches. Emperor Constantius called the first church Megale Ekklesia, translating to the “Great Church’’ in Greek. Pretty straightforward, right?

 

After it burned down, Emperor Theodosius II erected a new temple and christened it Hagia Sophia. This name, however, doesn’t refer to a saint named Sophia but to the divine wisdom of God. Hagia means “holy” in Greek, while “Sophia” means “wisdom”. Combine them, and you’ve got Holy Wisdom in English. 

Justinian opted to keep the same name – imagine the confusion if they’d decided to change its name every time they built a new church. After the conquest of Constantinople, the Ottomans tweaked its name to Ayasofya. So, there you have it, a blend of Greek and Roman roots reflecting the rich historical heritage of this gorgeous monument.

 

7. Hagia Sophia facts: Divine wisdom guided him

Hagia Sophia facts - Divine wisdom guided him

Imagine the tales these ancient stones could tell if they could speak.

 

Legend has it that one night, Justinian had a dream while sleeping in his imperial chambers. In this dream, holy wisdom whispered inspiration into his ear, urging him to build a grand cathedral that would surpass all others. A structure so magnificent that it would leave everyone speechless. And so, he began his mission to bring his dream to life.

When Justinian entered the new church in the 6th century, he exclaimed: ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you!’

When Justinian entered the newly completed Hagia Sophia on December 27, 537, he fell silent for a long time. According to the chronicler Procopius of Kaisareia, he exclaimed: ‘Solomon, I have surpassed you!’ The emperor referred to the biblical Temple of Solomon in Israel in proportions, beauty and wealth.

 

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Hagia Sophia facts - surprising facts about Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

 

8. Largest church in the world

Hagia Sophia facts: After its completion, Hagia Sophia claimed the title of the largest cathedral in the world. It held this prestigious position for an impressive 1,000 years.

Hagia Sophia wasn’t just another place of worship; this architectural marvel made other buildings green with envy.

 

Hagia Sophia isn’t just an average neighbourhood chapel – it has divine proportions. Justinian crafted the greatest cathedral up to that time, stretching far and wide, reaching towards the heavens. After its completion, Hagia Sophia claimed the title of the largest cathedral in the world. It held this prestigious position for an impressive 1,000 years (until the construction of the Seville Cathedral). The Seville Cathedral eventually stole the Hagia Sophia’s crown in the 16th century. But hey, it had an incredible reign, didn’t it?

 

9. A religious chameleon of Istanbul

Hagia Sophia facts: religious changes  

Hagia Sophia facts: religious changes

 

Hagia Sophia underwent some serious religious makeovers over the centuries. It started its journey as an Eastern Orthodox church, rocking these vibes for 844 years. Hagia Sophia decided to switch teams and became a Catholic church following the Fourth Crusade in 1204. But after less than 60 years and a little bit of soul-searching, Hagia Sophia decided to go back to its original Eastern Orthodox roots. But wait, it’s not over yet – here comes the plot twist!

In 1453, when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, they decided to switch things up. Hagia Sophia found itself under new management once again. It got a Muslim makeover and became a mosque. Out went the Christian icons like the cross and the altar, and came the minaret and the crescent moon. But hold on to your tourist hat; the story doesn’t end there!

 

Once the largest Christian temple served as a mosque for nearly 500 years.

Once the largest Christian temple served as a mosque for nearly 500 years. In 1935 Turkey’s government was feeling a bit modern. They pulled out the unexpected card and changed Hagia Sophia into a museum. Fast forward to 2020, and guess what? Hagia Sophia had another religious identity crisis and changed its status again, this time reverting to a mosque. And just like that, Hagia Sophia went from church to mosque to museum and back to mosque again.

 

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10. Where East meets West

Step inside, and you will spot the impressive Byzantine architecture mingling with the fancy Islamic design. Elegant calligraphy, pretty geometric patterns and an ornamental mihrab add a special touch.

A mix of architectural styles

 

You might already know that Hagia Sophia is a grand example of Byzantine architecture. This amazing building shows its Byzantine roots with its big domes, fancy mosaics and tall columns. But here is something cool: it also has some parts that show a different style called Islamic architecture.

Step inside, and you will spot the impressive Byzantine architecture mingling with the fancy Islamic design. Elegant calligraphy, pretty geometric patterns and an ornamental mihrab add a special touch. It’s like two different styles coming together in a really cool way!

Did you realise that the mihrab is slightly off-centre? It’s not a design choice; the Ottomans angled the mihrab towards Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.

A mihrab (altar) indicating the direction of Mecca

 

11. A mosaic wonderland

Hagia Sophia facts: Hagia Sophia is a mosaic wonderland. The Ottomans didn’t destroy all the original mosaics.

Hagia Sophia facts: The Ottomans didn’t destroy all the original mosaics.

 

Hagia Sophia has many old mosaics, some from the time of Justin II (the nephew of Justinian I). However, the most famous ones with figures date back to the 10th and 12th centuries. These aren’t just pretty pictures – they are time capsules telling stories from the past. They are like ancient billboards spreading the word of Christianity to all who enter. The mosaics show religious scenes, saints, emperors, and angels crafted with gold and other precious stones.

 

Hagia Sophia facts: It's a mosaic wonderland because its mosaics are a testament to the craftsmanship of the skilled artists.

Hagia Sophia’s mosaics are a testament to the craftsmanship of the skilled artists. 

 

Sultan Mehmed II

Sultan Mehmed II

 

Fortunately, when Sultan Mehmed II took over Constantinople, he didn’t destroy all the mosaics. Instead, he ordered their protection and covered them in plaster. Later, the Turkish government uncovered and fixed them. Today, there is only one mosaic in apse covered with a white cloth.

 

DID YOU KNOW?

Islamic traditions ban the depiction of living creatures.

 

12. Hagia Sophia facts: Lavish floor and funky carpets

Hagia Sophia facts - the Omphalion is the VIP area of the floor with a mysterious circle. It’s where Byzantine emperors received their crowns.

Next time you are in Hagia Sophia, don’t just marvel at the domes and ceilings. Take a peek at the 6th-century floor; it has a story to tell.

 

Did you know Hagia Sophia’s floor also has its own fascinating tales? Notice that section without a carpet. That’s the Omphalion, the VIP area of the floor with a mysterious circle. It’s where Byzantine emperors received their crowns. But what, there is more!

After Sultan Mehmed turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the Ottomans rolled out some carpets, but with a twist. Instead of laying them straight, they placed them at a funky angle. Have you ever noticed the turquoise carpets in Hagia Sophia have a slight angle? It’s not a design choice; they angled them towards Mecca, the holiest city in Islam.

 

Other little-known Hagia Sophia facts

 13. Minarets

Hagia Sophia facts: Minarets weren’t a part of the original design. The Ottomans added them later, after the church's conversion to a mosque. The red brick minaret dates back either to Sultan Mehmed's reign or maybe his son Beyazid II’s.

Hagia Sophia fun facts: Minarets weren’t a part of the original design. The Ottomans added them later, like the cherry on top of a delicious cake. They weren’t just for show; they had a crucial role to play. Think of them as a medieval version of your smartphone’s notifications, announcing prayers and announcements to the faithful.

 

Sultan Mehmed wasted no time and added a wooden minaret after the cathedral’s conversion to a mosque. Sadly, it no longer graces the skyline today. The red brick minaret – a rebel of the group, dates back to either his reign or maybe his son Beyazid II’s. Now, let’s turn our attention to the other minaret – see the slim white minaret on the northeast side of the mosque? Beyazid II added this narrow, elegant tower to the mix. And those other two identical 60-meter (200-foot) tall giants? They complete Hagia Sophia’s majestic silhouette.

 

14. The Imperial Gate: a legendary entrance with Noah’s Ark connection

Hagia Sophia facts: It has a legendary entrance with Noah’s Ark connection

The Imperial Gate on the right

 

When you step into Hagia Sophia, don’t overlook its Imperial Gate with a gorgeous mosaic above the door. This monumental 6th-century door isn’t your ordinary entrance but a doorway that once welcomed only the emperor and his closest guardians. It’s 7 metres (23 ft) tall and has a bronze frame and a majestic metal coffin above. And here is a fascinating secret: legend has it that its wood came from none other than Noah’s Ark itself! Who knew that the largest door in the building had such an epic tale to tell?

 

15. Replaced the original dome in the 6th century

Hagia Sophia facts - its central dome isn’t completely round. It rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows and has a slightly oval shape.

Did you know this beautiful dome wasn’t always picture-perfect? Even though the famous architects designed it with a revolutionary construction system, the first dome collapsed after a few earthquakes. Can you imagine the chaos following the earthquake on May 7th in 558?

 

Fortunately, Justinian knew how to handle a crisis, promptly calling upon the nephew of the original architect, Isidore of Miletus the Younger. Isidore employed innovative materials to lighten the load. He also changed the dome’s design and rebuilt the whole vault higher than before. 

The new dome uses a genius system of construction. Well, it’s all about those four mighty piers that support the dome’s weight and transfer it to the walls below. The new dome’s construction resembles the umbrella’s framework, with supporting ribs evenly distributing its weight. This allows the dome’s weight to flow between the windows, down the triangular vaults (known as pendentives), to the foundation. Fancy, right? That’s why the dome still stands tall and proud.

Hagia Sophia facts: One-of-a-kind-dome

The windows around the base of the original structure reduced the weight of the new dome.

 

ONE-OF-A-KIND-DOME

Hagia Sophia facts: Did you know that Hagia Sophia has the world’s second-largest pendentive dome, right after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome?

After the original dome fell, the new one rose even stronger. Did you know that Hagia Sophia has the world’s second-largest pendentive dome, right after St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome? It also has a much lower weight than any other dome of such a large diameter. 

 

Now, let’s talk size. This bad boy spans a diameter of 31.24 meters (102.5 ft) and has an impressive height of 55.6 metres (182 ft). That’s just 80 cm (31 inches) shorter than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! Despite its massive size, the dome appears weightless, almost as if it’s floating on air. Here is a kicker: the central dome isn’t completely round. It rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows and has a slightly oval shape.

 

16. Hagia Sophia facts: The Viking inscription

 In the Hagia Sophia’s sought gallery, there is a little gem – the 9th-century Viking inscription. A Viking named Halvdan left his mark with the simple words, “Halvdan was here.” Now, you might be scratching your head and wondering, “Who’s Halvdan?” Legend has it that he was a Viking warrior serving the Eastern Roman Empire. Next time you stroll through Hagia Sophia, keep an eye out for Halvdan’s graffiti, hiding in plain sight.

 

Now you know 16 surprising facts about Hagia Sophia!

 

Have you ever visited Hagia Sophia in Istanbul? Which fun fact about Hagia Sophia surprised you the most? Let us know in the comments below!

Hagia Sophia facts - surprising facts about Hagia Sophia

Pin 16 fascinating facts about Hagia Sophia for later!

 

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