How Hagia Sophia was Built

Hagia Sophia is one of the greatest construction works of the Middle Ages – it was built during the reign of Justinian the Great back in the sixth-century. One of the most fascinating accounts of how it was completed comes from the Patria, a tenth-century collection of stories and legends about Constantinople.

The Patria is an anonymous account that kind of reads like a travel guide to the capital of Byzantium. It contains stories about the churches, buildings and other monuments in Constantinople. Albrecht Berger, who recently completed a translation of this work, commented that it “presents a more or less complete and coherent picture of the city as it was in the middle Byzantine period. Despite its notorious historical inexactness and occasional sully anecdotes, and the fact that it was composed as a piece of light popular fiction rather than as a handbook about the city as it was in the late tenth century, the Patria is still the most complete source about the monuments of the city that has come down to us.”


The fourth and final book of the Patria contains an account of how Hagia Sophia was built. While historians should be wary about trusting if these stories are true, it does offer an entertaining look at what, centuries later, the Byzantines believed to be how the construction of the church took place.

This building was the third church to be built at this location. The second church, which was only about a hundred years old, was a victim of the Nika Revolt that took place in January of 532, and was burned to the ground in the riots. A few weeks later, Emperor Justinian decided to rebuild an even bigger church. As the Patria states, “God inspired him to build a church such as had never been built since Adam’s time.”


The Byzantine government soon began making plans for the new building, with Justinian sending out orders to all the corners of his empire:

wrote to all his generals, satraps, judges and the tax officials of the themes that they all should search for columns, revetments, parapets, slabs, chancel barriers and doors and all the other materials which are need to build the church. All those who had received his order sent materials, from pagan temples and from old baths and houses, to the emperor Justinian by rafts, from all themes of the east and west, north and south, and from all islands.

In order to make a larger church, they had to buy the nearby properties. In one case a widow named Anna would not sell her houses until the Emperor came to see her in person. Anna then revealed she would give up the properties if she could be buried in the church, which was granted.  Another house was owned by man named Antiochos, but he refused to sell it. One of the emperor’s officials then had the man thrown in prison just before the horse races were to start at the Hippodrome. Antiochos was a great lover of the races, and on the day they were to begin, his defiance ended and he shouted from his jail cell: “Let me see the Hippodrome games, I will do the will of the emperor.” He was brought to Justinian and made the sale before taking his seat at the games.

The Patria also tells of how the sale by a eunuch named Chariton Chenopoulos:

When he wanted to sell his houses, he asked the emperor not only to give him double the price for his abode, but also to let him be honored and venerated by the four charioteers when the Hippodrome games are being held. The emperor gave these instructions, but made him a perpetual object of ridicule, for he ordered that his statue should be set up in perpetuity, on the day when the Hippodrome games were performed, in the middle of the starting boxes, and this backside should be mockingly reverenced by the charioteers before mounting their chariots. This has lasted to this day, and he is called the ruler of underworld.


As the land was being bought up, construction work began:

There were a hundred master craftsmen, and each of them had a hundred men, so that all together there were ten thousand. Fifty masters with their crews were building the right-hand side, and the other fifty were likewise building the left-hand side, so that the work would proceed quickly, in competition and haste.

One story involves the fourteen-year old son of Ignatios, the chief builder, who was left behind to watch over the construction workers’ tools while the men went out to eat breakfast.

When the boy sat down, a eunuch appeared to him clad in a shining robe, and with a beautiful face, as if he had been sent from the palace, and said to the boy, “Why do the workers not complete the work of God quickly, but have abandoned it and gone away to eat?” The boy said, “My lord, they will be back soon.” When he said again, “Go and talk to them, for I am anxious for the work to be finished quickly,” and the boy told him that he would not leave lest all the tools disappear, the eunuch said, “Go quickly and summon them to come quickly, and I swear to you thus, my child: by the Holy Wisdom, the Word of God, which is now being built, I will not leave here – for I have been assigned to this place by the Word of God to work and to keep watch -, until you return.”


When the boy heard this, he ran off, leaving the angel of the Lord to keep watch over the building site for the gallery. When the boy came down, he found his father, the master builder, together with the others and explained everything. And his father took him to the emperor’s breakfast, for the emperor was eating there in the chapel of Saint John the Forerunner at the clock house. The emperor heard the boy’s words and summoned all the eunuchs, and showed the boy each of them, saying, “Isn’t it this one?” When the boy declared that none of them looked like the eunuch he had seen in the church, the emperor understood that he was an angel of the Lord, and this his word and oath were true. When the boy said that the eunuch was dressed in white and his cheeks sent out fire and his face was completely transformed, the emperor praised God greatly and said, “God is pleased with this work,” and “I was in great anxiety as to what name I should give the church,” and since then the church received the name ‘Holy Wisdom [Hagia Sophia]’, which is understood to be the Word of God. And having considered the matter, the emperor said, “The boy is not to return to the construction site, so that the angel may be forever on guard, as he has sworn. For if they boy returns and is found in the building, then the angel of the Lord will leave.”

The boy was made rich and sent into exile to Cycladic islands, and never returned to the church. The Patria also has other stories involving angels bringing money to help pay for the construction, and even asking the master builder to make small changes to his design.

how hagia sophia was built - photo by Esther Lee / Flickr
The interior of Hagia Sophia – photo by Esther Lee / Flickr

The emperor was also heavily involved in the construction of Hagia Sophia, spending a vast amount of money. For example, Justinian had gold, silver, pearls and precious stones mixed into the materials that made the High Altar, so that when someone looked on it, “it appears sometimes as gold, in other places as silver, elsewhere gleaming with sapphire – radiating and, in a world, sending out seventy-two colors according to the nature of the sotones, pearls and all the metals.”

The text notes the many things he provided for the church, ranging from three hundred golden lamps weighing forty pounds each, to giving it twenty-four Gospel books. Justinian even wanted to make the whole floor out of pure silver, but his advisors convinced him that if he did, the poor would steal it.


The Patria adds:

He also made twelve waterspouts and stone lions around the fountain house spouting water for the ablutions of the common people. On the right-hand side of the women’s section on the right he made a pool in which the water was one span deep, and a walkway, so that the priests could walk over the pool. Facing the pool he set up a cistern of rainwater, and he carved twelve lions, twelve leopards, twelve deer, eagles and hares, calves and crows, twelve each. Out of their throats water was spouted by means of a device for the ablution of the priests alone. He called this place ‘the Little Lion’, and constructed the changing room there, a beautiful chamber covered with gold, so that, whenever he went to the church, he could rest there.

It took over five years to finish building Hagia Sophia (the Patria incorrectly states it took sixteen years to be completed). The opening day ceremonies included an imperial procession from the palace to the church, with the emperor arriving by a chariot drawn by four horses. Justinian made an offering of 1000 oxen, 6000 sheep, 600 deer, 1000 boars, 10,000 chickens and another 10,000 roosters. He even gave away 30,000 bushels of grain to the poor, which took three hours to distribute.

After entering Hagia Sophia, he stretched out his hands and said, “Glory to be God, who deemed me worthy to accomplish such a work. I have defeated you, Solomon!” Afterwards one of his officials poured hundreds of coins onto the floor. The festivities continued for another fifteen days.

However, there was still one problem for Justinian:

Since the aforementioned master of the Great Church, Ignatios, was loved by everybody because of the wonderful works he created, the emperor feared that he might be acclaimed and proclaimed as emperor by the two circus factions. He did not want to kill him, as many had advised him to do, and when he was despondent, they suggested to him again that when the column of the Augoustian had been built by him, Justinian should leave him there (on top of the column) while they removed the scaffolding, so that he would die from hunger, and this he did.

When Ignatios was on top of the column, placing the a statue of the emperor on horseback in place, he realized that everyone had abandoned him and left him on top. But he did have with a piece of thin rope and a knife, and on that first night be cut up his clothes, including his undershirt, pants, and belts, into thin strips. He tied them together with the rope and lowered it down to test how far it would go. Since it was night, only his wife was at the bottom of the column, and he called out to her: “I have been left here to die, but you should go and secretly buy a thick rope as long as the column, rub it with liquid pitch, and come again in the middle of the night.”

The following night she returned with the thick rope, which she bound to his rope and he pulled it up. He then affixed the rope to the leg on the horse’s statue and used it to descend safely to the ground. The liquid pitch was used so that the rope would be sticky for him to grab, and then once he got down, he set the rope on fire so that burned away entirely.

The night Ignatios fled Constantinople with his family, and went to Adrianople, where he lived disguised as a monk for three years. Meanwhile, everyone in capital believed that the master builder had died on top of the column. Eventually, Ignatios returned to Constantinople to confront Justinian:

Once, when the emperor went by on a procession to the Holy Apostles, he met him there, and asked for forgiveness, so that he would not be killed. When the emperor recognized him, he was astonished with all his senate. The emperor feigned ignorance of what had happened to Ignatious, gave him many gifts, and dismissed him in peace, saying, “Look, whom God wants to live, a thousand people will not kill.” And from that time he lived in great peace.

You can read more about the building of Hagia Sophia and other places in Byzantine capital in The Accounts of Medieval Constantinople: The Patria, translated by Albrecht Berger, which is part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, and published by Harvard University Press in 2013. Click here to visit the Publisher’s website to learn more.

Click here to learn more about the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library

See also: A Spectacle of Great Beauty: The Changing Faces of Hagia Sophia

See also: Byzantium Revisited: The Mosaics of Hagia Sophia in the Twentieth Century

Top Image: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – Photo by Scott MacLeod Liddle / Flickr