History of Agia Sophia
The date of the Agia Sophia is not entirely clear. Based on its masonry and the imperfect design of its pendentives, some scholars think it could predate its more famous namesake in Istanbul, which was built in the 6th century. But most believe it dates from the early 8th century, perhaps during the reign of Leo III the Isaurian (717-40), and represents a transitional style between the domed basilica and the domed cruciform church.
Whichever date is correct, the present building is not the first to stand on the site: excavations have revealed remains of both a Roman building and an Early Christian basilica beneath the church.
After seven or eight centuries as an Orthodox church, the Agia Sophia was converted into a mosque by the Turks in 1585. After a fire in 1890, it was reconstructed in 1907-10 and rededicated for Christian worship in 1912. The building lost its elegant Turkish portico to an Italian air raid in 1941and was badly damaged by the earthquake of 1978.
What to See at Agia Sophia
Due to its 20th-century renovations, the Agia Sophia lacks some of the ambiance of Thessaloniki's less restored churches. But the historical and artistic importance of this ancient sacred site still make it well worth a visit.
The exterior is not especially attractive, but it occupies a fine setting in a garden with palms and pine trees. The west facade is plain, flat, and square, but the east side looks more like a typical Byzantine church. The interior is exceptionally spacious, covered with a dome 10 meters in diameter. Unusually, it rests on a square drum with rounded corners rather than a circle.
Thankfully, some of Agia Sophia's original mosaics have survived its turbulent history. Those on the dome date from the 9th or 10th centuries and depict the Ascension, with Christ seated on a rainbow throne occupying the central medallion. Below is the Virgin Mary flanked by angels and the Apostles divided by trees. A Greek inscription quotes the angels' remark in Acts 1:11: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?"
The apse mosaics include a Virgin Enthroned and monograms of Constantine VI and the Empress Irene. Some mosaics survive from the Iconoclastic period, when figural representations were forbidden in religious art, and are dated to 785-97. These mosaics depict crosses, stars, and liturgical texts.
The arches on the west wall of the narthex bear fragments of 11th-century frescoes, consisting mainly of full-length and bust portraits of saints.
Outside the church to the northwest is Agia Sophia Square, one of the most important squares in Thessaloniki. When the city was liberated from the Germans on November 2, 1944, this is where the service of thanksgiving was held. Across the way at 33 Agias Sophias is the Terkenlis and Byzantium pastry shop, a good place for a snack break after visiting the church.
Quick Facts on Agia Sophia
|Categories:||churches; change of religion|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||40.632802° N, 22.947194° E|
|Address:||Ayia Sofia Sq.|
|Hours:||Daily 8am-9pm (but often closed about 1-5pm)|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Agia Sophia|
- Sherry Marker and James Pettifer, Blue Guide Greece: The Mainland, 7th ed. (W.W. Norton, 2006), 603-04.
- Ayia Sophia - Frommer's Greece
- Photos of Agia Sophia - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Agia Sophia, Thessaloniki
Below is a location map and aerial view of Agia Sophia. Using the buttons on the left (or the wheel on your mouse), you can zoom in for a closer look, or zoom out to get your bearings. To move around, click and drag the map with your mouse.