When it was consecrated in Constantinople in 537, no one in the history of architecture had attained the sophistication or shown the daring to erect such a building. The interior of the church -- so vast that huge crowds of people could fit inside -- is topped by a dome that seems suspended from the sky.
Supported on four freestanding piers, the dome soars 183 feet above the floor, while soft light from high windows adds to the impression of immense, airy space. This is Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya in Turkish -- the church whose name means, literally, Holy Wisdom.
Hagia Sophia influenced architects for centuries after its consecration in 537.
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It was built in Constantinople as an imperial church by Justinian the Great, who insisted on using rare materials such as marble panels and breccia columns. In 1453, when the city fell to the Muslim Ottomans, Hagia Sophia's role changed; it was converted to a mosque and dedicated to Allah.
The Ottomans added a prayer niche called a mihrab that points the faithful toward Makkah, a screened loge for the sultan, and, hanging above the nave, huge wooden plaques inscribed with Arabic calligraphy. Outside, they attached four minarets.
The Muslims also covered the church's exquisite figurative mosaics with whitewash, a covering that preserved many of them until the structure was renovated in the 13th century. Among Hagia Sophia's mosaics, the real conversation piece is one depicting Empress Zoe and her husband, Constantine IX -- whose face was the third to fill the same space, as each of the empress's consorts was replaced.
One particularly lovely design of Christ, the Virgin, and John the Baptist dates to the 1300s, a last flaring of the Byzantine spirit. The emperors Constantine and Justinian appear in another scene, handing over Istanbul and Hagia Sophia to the Virgin and Child.
So -- is Hagia Sophia a church or a mosque? Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic, ended that debate by declaring Hagia Sophia a national museum in 1935. Today, its glory is open to all.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn, Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.