For centuries it stood at the heart of two of the world's great religions: To Christians it was Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom, mother church of the Orthodox faith and of the thousand-year-old Byzantine Empire. To Muslims, it became Ayasofya Camii, Mosque of Holy Wisdom and jewel of Istanbul. But to people of all faiths, it was, in the words of sixth-century historian Procopius, a "spectacle of marvellous beauty, overwhelming to those who know it by hearsay altogether incredible. For it soars to a height to match the sky...stands on high and looks down on the remainder of the city...."
In A.D. 326, Constantinople was laid out on the shores of the Bosporus by Emperor Constantine. Thirty years later, his successor built its first great church - eventually called Hagia Sophia - but it stood only 172 years before rioting crowds burned it to the ground. This event, in 532, was perhaps auspicious: It occurred during the reign of Justinian the Builder, who would give the world the sublime "tent of the heavens" that still stands and in whose creation "God has surely taken part."
Reconstruction started just 39 days after the destruction of the original church. The gigantic structure was modeled loosely on the Roman Pantheon. Measuring 220 feet by 250 feet along its main floor, it was laid out as a rectangle, at whose center was a square. Soaring 180 feet above the square was a dome supported by four massive pendentives on equally massive piers. At the east and west ends of the dome square were two have domes serving as the apse and entrance bay. The engineering feat was even more incredible considering that only brick, mortar, and stone were used. Although the earlier Romans knew how to make concrete, these Eastern builders did not.
Justinian embellished the interior with riches. Four acres of gold mosaics shimmered from the ceiling, and multicolored marble gleamed from the floors, columns, and wall panels.
Less than six years after work on it began, Justinian's monument to Christendom was completed. In A.D. 558 much of it collapsed due to the many earthquakes in the region. Because the initial architects, Anthemius and Isodorus, were no longer living, the latter's nephew, Isidorus the Younger, was given the task of rebuilding. This time it lasted 400 more years before collapsing again, and being again rebuilt.
In 1204, knoghts of the Fourth Crusade marched on the Byzantine Empire's capital city, stripping it and Hagia Sophia so remorselessly that a chronicler called it the most awesome plunder "since the creation of the world."
When Rome's hegemony ended 57 years later, the Church of the Holy Wisdom was devoid of glittering wealth. Bulky buttresses were built to shore it up, but its days of glory, and those of Constantinople, were drawing to a close. In 1453, Sultan Mohammed II massed the Ottoman army in front of the city. After a 53-day siege, the Byzantine Empire's great capital capitulated, and the conqueror marched into town and directly to Hagia Sophia. His ulama recited a Muslim prayer, and the sultan declared Eastern Christianity's cornerstone a mosque.
For almost 500 years it remained such, its mosaics whitewashed to hide the "idolatrous" figures of humans. Koranic inscriptions were placed in the four corners beneath the dome; four minarets were erected at the corners of the exterior perimeter; a gilded bronze crescent replaced the large metal cross crowning the basilica.
While the changes offended Christians, the Mosque of Holy Wisdom enjoyed a place of high regard among devotees of Islam. In the 20th century, Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk viewed the structure as a unifying symbol for East and West. He closed the mosque in 1932, uncovered its medeival mosaics, and reopened Hagia Sophia as a museum in 1934. Nearly 15 centuries after Justinian, it stands as a monument to both human and divine wisdom.