Socrates (380-440), the official chronicler of church history, credited the construction of the original Hagia Sophia in 360 to Emperor Constantine I (324-337). Apparently, Constantine I, known as “the Great,” first made Christianity his state religion, then began building huge Christian churches throughout Byzantium. One of those was Hagia Sophia whose name means “holy wisdom.” Nearly 200 years later, fires and riots destroyed that original edifice.
The Hagia Sophia that now serves the world as a famous museum in Istanbul was rebuilt under Emperor Justinian (532-537) by his imperial architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Unfortunately, severe earthquakes destroyed their dome, so it had to be rebuilt again in 563, but on a somewhat higher curve.
A Succession of Domes
Many consider Hagia Sophia the supreme masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. A lofty central dome, 102 feet in diameter and 184 feet in height, spans its spacious nave. That dome sits on pendentives – or supporting arches at the corners of a square – that make the transition to a circular plan possible. The arches at the east and west are extended and buttressed by great half-domes. Those half-domes rest on smaller, semi domed exedras or porticos. Consequently, the huge main dome is really a succession of smaller domes.
A Golden Shell
Side aisles with galleries over them flank the nave. The galleries have massive vaults on monolithic columns of green and white marble and purple porphyry. They receive the thrust of the great dome and its supporting arches. A corona of 40 arched windows encircles the dome, invites rays of sunlight into its majestic interior and creates the illusion that Hagia Sophia is a weightless, golden shell with a miraculous inherent stability.