The Hagia Sophia, whose name means “holy wisdom,” is a domed monument originally built as a cathedral in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the sixth century A.D.
It contains two floors centered on a giant nave that has a great dome ceiling, along with smaller domes, towering above.
“Hagia Sophia’s dimensions are formidable for any structure not built of steel,” writes Helen Gardner and Fred Kleiner in their book "Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History." “In plan it is about 270 feet [82 meters] long and 240 feet [73 meters] wide. The dome is 108 feet [33 meters] in diameter and its crown rises some 180 feet [55 meters] above the pavement.”
In its 1,400 year life-span it has served as a cathedral, mosque and now a museum. When it was first constructed, Constantinople was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. This state, officially Christian, originally formed the eastern half of the Roman Empire and carried on after the fall of Rome.
Born out of riots
The story of the construction of the Hagia Sophia began in A.D. 532 when the Nika Riots, a great revolt, hit Constantinople. At the time Emperor Justinian I had been ruler of the empire for five years and had become unpopular. It started in the hippodrome among two chariot racing factions called the blue and green with the riot spreading throughout the city the rioters chanting “Nika,” which means “victory,” and attempting to throw out Justinian by besieging him in his palace.
“People were resentful of the high taxes that Justinian had imposed and they wanted him out of office,” said University of London historian Caroline Goodson in a National Geographic documentary. After moving loyal troops into the city Justinian managed to put down the rebellion with brute force.
In the wake of the uprising, and on the site of a torched church that had been called the Hagia Sophia, a new Hagia Sophia would be built. To the ancient writer Paul the Silentiary, who lived when the cathedral was completed, the building represented a triumph for both Justinian and Christianity.
“I say, renowned Roman Capitol, give way! My Emperor has so far overtopped that wonder as great God is superior to an idol!” (Translation by Peter Bell, from the book "Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian," Liverpool University Press, 2009)