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Art Through Time: A Global View

Conflict and Resistance Art: Hagia Sophia (exterior)

» Anthemius of Tralles (Greek, active 6th c.) and Isidorus of Miletus (Greek, active 6th c.) (architects)

Hagia Sophia (exterior)

Hagia Sophia (exterior)
Artist / Origin: Anthemius of Tralles (Greek, active 6th c.) and Isidorus of Miletus (Greek, active 6th c.) (architects)
Region: West Asia
Date: Begun 532–537
Period: 500 CE – 1000 CE
Material: Brick, stone, stucco, and other materials
Medium: Architecture and Planning
Dimensions: (Dome) H: approx. 182 ½ ft. (55.6 m.); (Minarets) H: approx. 197 ft. (60 m.) (each)
Location: Istanbul, Turkey
Credit: Courtesy of Vanni/Art Resource, NY

Located in present-day Turkey, Hagia Sophia, or the church of Holy Wisdom, has a long and complex history.

The spot where Hagia Sophia now stands was originally occupied by a pagan temple. However, in 360 the site was appropriated by Christians who raised a small basilica where the temple had been. Over the next two centuries this structure was destroyed and rebuilt several times. The most glorious resurrection of the church, however, was undertaken in the sixth century by the Emperor Justinian; it is this incarnation that forms the core of the building we know today.

Situated in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the massive Hagia Sophia with its expansive dome was a powerful symbol of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. As such, it became the focus of religious conflicts both among Christians and between Christians and Muslims. In the eighth and ninth centuries, the church was at the center of iconoclastic debates, and much of its original decoration was removed or ravaged by those Christians who believed worship with images would inevitably lead to idolatry. Three centuries later, during the Fourth Crusade, the Byzantine Hagia Sophia was seized and ransacked by European representatives of the Western church.

When the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople (later renaming it Istanbul) in 1453, the structure again became the prize of the victor. Christian mosaics were plastered over, relics and ceremonial objects were removed, and Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque. Over time, minarets were added to the exterior. The building functioned as a place of Islamic worship until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Today it is a public museum.

Expert Perspective
Tarek Kahlaoui, Assistant Professor of Islamic Art and Islamic History, Rutgers University

“We have two traditions here, and this is related to the concept of conquest in Islam, the Arabic word for ‘conquest’ is futūh. We have the conquest by force and we have the conquest by compromise or by peace. Where we have the conquest by force then Muslims are allowed legally, from a religious point of view, to maybe destroy or appropriate the buildings of the local population. In Constantinople it was conquest by force. The Ottomans decided to appropriate all buildings and all properties of the local population of Constantinople. They decided to make Hagia Sophia as their main mosque.”

Additional Resources

Barber, Charles. Figure and Likeness: On the Limits of Representation in Byzantine Iconoclasm. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Mainstone, R.J. Hagia Sophia: Architecture, Structure, and Liturgy of Justinian’s Great Church. London: Thames & Hudson, 1997.

Mark, Robert, and Ahmet Ş. Çakmak, eds. Hagia Sophia from the Age of Justinian to the Present. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Nelson, Robert S. Hagia Sophia, 1850–1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 2004.

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