Late Roman & Byzantine Sites of Istanbul

Part Six: Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene


41. Hagia Sophia

Ayasofya Square, Sultanahmet

Hagia Sophia has a long and complicated history. The current church stands on the site of two earlier structures.


First Hagia Sophia

First half of the 4th century

The first Hagia Sophia was probably built by Constantine the Great (306-337) and subsequently repaired and consecrated by Emperor Constantius II (337-361). It was inaugurated in 360.

The original church was a traditional Latin basilica with colonnades, galleries, a wooden roof, and an atrium. It was claimed to be one of the world’s most outstanding monuments of the time. It was known as the Great Church, because of its larger dimensions in comparison with the contemporary churches in Constantinople. It served as a cathedral and was one of the two principal churches in the Empire (the other being Hagia Eirene). It was destroyed in a fire in 404. Nothing remains of it today.


Second Hagia Sophia

Rufinus, 415

The second Hagia Sophia was built by Theodosius II. It was inaugurated in 415. A work of architect Rufinus, it was a five-nave basilica with a wooden roof and a monumental entrance. The church burned down during the Nika riots in 532.

Parts of the second church have survived and are displayed in the garden at the entrance of the current church. The most memorable of the remains are reliefs depicting 12 lambs (representing the 12 apostles). These formed the architrave of the entrance of the church.


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Third Hagia Sophia

Isidore of Miletus & Anthemius of Tralles, 532-537; many later changes and additions

The current church is the third one on the site. Its construction was launched by Emperor Justinian I in 532, just a few weeks after the destruction of the previous church. The architects were physicists and mathematicians Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. More than 10,000 people were employed in the construction. The church was inaugurated by the Emperor and Patriarch Menas on December 27, 537.

Hagia Sophia is one of the marvels of world architecture. It is dedicated to the Divine Wisdom, forming a pair with the virtually contemporary Hagia Eirene (Divine Peace). It was the culminating architectural achievement of late antiquity and the first masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Its influence was widespread in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Islamic worlds alike. Its architecture affected greatly the development of Ottoman mosque architecture since the 15th century on.

The third Hagia Sophia was radically innovative in its design. It is essentially a basilica with three naves, one apse, and two narthexes, but the central space is covered by a dome. The basilica plan had already been combined with that of a centralised structure in some Constantinopolitan churches, most notably in the Church of the Saints Sergius and Bacchus and, maybe, in the Church of Saint Polyeuctus, but in Hagia Sophia it was done in a new way and on a vastly larger scale. It can be said that it made the domed central plan not only widespread throughout the Eastern Roman Empire, but also determinative of its identity. In the west, timber-roofed basilicas, which had previously been the standard, would continue to be so.

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The inner space of Hagia Sophia is huge: 100 m from the exonarthex to the apse and 69.5 m crosswise. It was the world’s largest church until the completion of the Seville Cathedral in 1517.

Originally, Hagia Sophia was richly decorated. It featured, for example, a 15-m silver iconostasis and contained a large collection of relics. Justinian is thought to have exclaimed, seeing this marvel: ‘Solomon, I have outdone thee!’ The mosaics were completed during the reign of Emperor Justin II (565-574).

Hagia Sophia was the principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, such as coronations. It also served as the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople since its construction until the Ottoman conquest, except during the Latin Empire in 1204-1261, when it was a Roman Catholic church. It lost a lot of its golden mosaics and other valuable items to the Crusaders led by Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice, during the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.


When Ottoman soldiers entered Constantinople on May 29, 1453, trapped Byzantines were participating in the Divine Liturgy and the Prayer of the Hours at Hagia Sophia. The priests continued to perform the rites, while the church was looted and people were killed, raped, or taken in slavery. When Sultan Mehmed II entered the church, he had it converted to a mosque at once, one of his first acts in the vanquished city.

The Ottomans subsequently destroyed the bells, the altar, the iconostasis and other relics and added Islamic features such as the mihrab and the minbar. Hagia Sophia became the first imperial mosque of Istanbul. The mosaics depicting Christian figures were destroyed or plastered over. This process, however, took time. There are reports from the 17th century in which travellers note that some Byzantine images were still visible in the mosque.

The minarets were added as well, with the first one being erected by Mehmed II. The surviving red-brick minaret dates from his reign (until 1481), or at least from the period of Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512). The other three minarets were built from white limestone and sandstone. The one on the side of the Imperial Gate of the Topkapı Palace is thought to have been built by the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in the era of Sultan Selim II (1566-1574). This assumption is made on the basis of the stylistic similarity with the minarets of the contemporary Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. The remaining two minarets were built by Mimar Sinan in the era of Sultan Murat III (1574-1595). Various ornaments were added to the minarets in different centuries.

Hagia Sophia, known as Ayasofya in Turkish, remained the principal mosque of Istanbul until the construction of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in 1616.

Another important era in the history of Hagia Sophia are the years 1847-1849, when restauration works ordered by Sultan Abdülmecid I were carried out under the supervision of the Swiss-Italian brothers Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati. During this restauration, the minarets were made of equal height, and the exterior, clad in stucco, was tinted yellow and red. Many works were carried out on the inside as well.

On February 1, 1935, Hagia Sophia opened as a museum. The white plaster covering many mosaics was removed. The conversion of the mosque into a museum was one of the most important acts carried out by the leader of the young Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

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The most important element of Hagia Sophia is its dome. It is carried by four pendentives, which begin at the corners of the square base of the dome and curve upwards to form a circle on which the dome rests. The pendentives restrain the big lateral forces of the dome and allow its weight to flow downwards to four massive piers. It is one of the first large-scale uses of the pendentives.

The dome is huge and heavy. Its weight has been a problem since the construction of Hagia Sophia. The original dome came down crashing in 558. The cause of the collapse was mainly the unfeasibly high bearing load and the enoromous shear load of the dome, which was too flat. These forces caused the deformation of the piers that sustained the dome. Another weakness of the construction was the use of wet mortar, which forced the walls that supported the dome to lean outward when the dome was built on them.

After the collapse, Isidore the Younger, the nephew of Isidore of Miletus, made the walls vertical again and recalculated the dimensions of the dome. The new dome was approximately six meters taller than the original one, reducing the lateral forces. The dome was further reinforced by ribs, which extend from the top down to the base and guide the weight of the dome down the pendentives to the foundation. 40 arched windows were added to the base of the dome, giving it the famous appearance of hovering above. They also lower the weight of the dome. The reconstruction of the dome altered the fenestration of other parts of the church as well, such as the south and north arches supporting the dome, which now had smaller windows than before. This reconstruction was completed in 562.

A large section of the second dome collapsed as well, in 989 and 1346. Today, only two sections of that dome remain, encompassing 14 ribs of the 40. The repairs to the dome throughout the centuries have left it somewhat elliptical, with the diameter varying between 30.86 and 31.87 m. The dome is 55.6 m high.

The dome was originally decorated with the Pantocrator mosaic similar to the one visible in the parecclesion of the Pammakaristos Church. It was covered or destroyed when Hagia Sophia became a mosque. The centerpiece of the dome is now a calligraphic verse taken from the Quran. Conservators have had a lot of discussion about whether to remove the calligraphy and reveal the underlying Pantocrator mosaic (assuming that it still exists). The controversy comes from the fact that the recovery of the mosaic would imply the destruction of an important piece of Islamic art.

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The pressure of the dome of Hagia Sophia was balanced with buttresses erected by both the Byzantines and Ottomans. The buttresses obfuscate, to a large extent, the general structure of the church, when seen from the outside. As they block some windows, they also make the church darker than it was originally.

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Other elements that support the dome are the two semi-domes that can be found above the western entrance and the apse. These have a diameter identical to that of the central dome and are endowed with semi-domed exedrae on diagonal axes. Hagia Sophia is thus entirely covered by domical surfaces.

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Other support structures of Hagia Sophia include columns. The most famous of the columns is the Weeping Column, also known as the Wishing Column and the Sweating Column. It has a hole that is said to be damp when touched. It supposedly offers a cure for eye infections and a boost for fertility.

Other columns are architecturally more interesting. Some columns were bought from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Some have the monograms of Justinian and his wife Theodora carved into their capitals. There are a total of 104 columns in the structure.

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In the picture below is one of the eight porphyry columns that can be found the nave of Hagia Sophia. Bronze collars have been added to secure it from splitting. Purple is the colour of Byzantine nobility.

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The exterior and interior surfaces of Hagia Sophia were originally decorated with marbles. The marbles come from ancient cities around Anatolia and Syria, such as Aspendos, Ephesus, Baalbek, and Tarsus. The white marbles with which the whole exterior was covered were brought from the Marmara Island, the green porphyry comes from Euboea, the pink marbles are from Afyon, and the yellow from North Africa. The decorative wall coatings were created by dividing single marble blocks into two and combining them in order to create symmetrical shapes (a process known as bookmatching).

Another important structure in Hagia Sophia is the Omphalion, a large panel of marble with circles of various colours and dimensions set into the floor of the nave. It marks the site where the Byzantine emperors were crowned.

Some interior surfaces were covered by mosaics. These were made of gold, silver, glass, terracotta, and gemstones. Originally, the mosaics featured geometric patterns and plant motifs. All the figurative mosaics that can be found in Hagia Sophia today are from the post-Iconoclast period.

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The apse of Hagia Sophia is adorned with a beautiful mosaic of Theotokos from 867. It was the first figurative image that was added to the church after the Iconoclast period (726-787 and 814-842), during which all religious images were forbidden. Mary is sitting on a throne, holding Child Jesus on her lap. Her feet rest on a pedestal, which is, like the throne, adorned with gemstones.

Mosaic of Theotokos on the apse of Hagia Sophia (867)

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On the bema vault of Hagia Sophia there were images of archangels Gabriel and Michael. Today, only the mosaic of archangel Gabriel is legible. He is holding a crystal globe in his left hand and a staff in his right hand. These mosaics are sometimes believed to be reproductions of the 6th-century mosaics that were destroyed during the Iconoclast era. A more generally accepted theory, however, is that it is only their golden background (such as the halo surrounding the head of archangel Gabriel) that was part of the 6th-century interior of the church.

Mosaic of archangel Gabriel on the bema vault of Hagia Sophia
(last third of 9th century)

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The pendentives of the dome of Hagia Sophia are decorated with four figures of the hexapteryga – six-winged angels, seraphim or cherubim, that protect the Throne of God. These were probably created in 989-994, when Trdat, Armenian architect now known as the author of the Cathedral of Ani and the Haghpat Monastery, repaired the dome that had fallen down once again. The angel images on the east side of the church survive as mosaics. These were restored during the works carried out in 1847-1849 by the Fossati brothers. The mosaics on the west pendentives were damaged in the Byzantine era and were renewed as frescoes during that restoration. In the Ottoman period, the faces of the angels were covered with star-shaped metallic lids.

Mosaics and frescoes of the hexapteryga on the dome pendentives of Hagia Sophia
(the mosaics – late 10th century; the frescoes – Gaspare & Giuseppe Fossati, 1847-1849)

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The Fossati brothers were allowed by Sultan Abdülmecid I to record the details of several other mosaics before painting them over. Their recordings are the primary sources about the mosaics that were destroyed in the 1894 earthquake. The lost mosaics of which we know thanks to the work by the Fossatis include those depicting church fathers in the south tympanum of the church.

On the north typmanum, however, the mosaics survive. These depict Ignatius of Antioch, John Chrysostom, and Ignatius of Constantinople. They are clothed in white robes with crosses and are holding richly jeweled Bibles. These mosaics date from the period of Trdat.

Hagia Sophia is entered via a double entrance hall (narthex). The outer hall (exonarthex) is plain, while the inner hall (esonarthex) is richly decorated. Before the exonartex there was originally an atrium with five gates, stretching westwards for about 42 metres. The south-west and north-west porches are probably not part of the original design. The south-west porch may have come into being during the modification works of the Palace of the Patriarchs, which was located at the south-west corner of Hagia Sophia and of which some rooms, dated to the reign of Justin II (565-574), as well as some 9th-century figurative mosaics remain.


The esonarthex of Hagia Sophia is walled in marble and adorned with glittering geometric mosaics from the era of Justinian. The nine huge doors leading from the esonarthex to the nave probably date from that era as well.

Mosaics in the esonarthex of Hagia Sophia


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An entrance for the Emperor was through the Splendid Door at the south exit of the esonarthex, in the Vestibule of the Warriors. It was here that the Emperor left his crown and sword before entering the church. The Splendid Door is made of bronze and decorated with reliefs of geometric patterns and plant motifs. It is the oldest architectural element in Hagia Sophia, dating back to the 2nd century BC. It was incorporated into the building in 838 by Emperor Theophilos, who had brought it from a temple in Tarsus and whose words and monograms can be found engraved in it.

In the Vestibule of the Warriors, there is a mosaic of Theotokos, dating from the reign of Basil II (976-1025). The Virgin is sitting on a throne with her feet resting on a pedestal embellished with gemstones. The Child Christ is sitting on her lap, holding a scroll in the left hand while giving his blessing with the right hand. On the left of Mary stands Emperor Constantine, who is presenting to her a model of the city. His figure is accompanied by the words in Greek meaning ‘Among the saints is great Emperor Constantine’. On the right of Mary is Emperor Justinian, who offers to her a model of Hagia Sophia. He is described as the ‘Famous Emperor Justinian’ in the mosaic. Virgin Mary thus becomes the protector of the city and the church.

Mosaic of Theotokos in the Vestibule of the Warriors of Hagia Sophia
(late 10th or early 11th century)

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Above the Imperial Gate is a mosaic depicting the enthroned Christ with an emperor prostrating in front of him. That emperor is assumed to be Leo VI the Wise (886-912), who had had three wives but had no male heir and wished to marry for the fourth time. His prostration may suggest that he is pleading with Christ for forgiveness. Jesus is holding an open Bible in his left hand and is making the sign of blessing with his right hand. Written in the Bible are the Greek words, ‘May Peace be with you. I am the divine light’. On each side of the Christ is a circular medallion: on his left is Archangel Gabriel, while on his right is Virgin Mary.

Mosaic of Leo VI above the Imperial Gate of Hagia Sophia (late 9th or early 10th century)

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The upper galleries of Hagia Sophia were originally accessed by the spiral ramps at each of the four corners of the church. Now only that in the north-west corner is in use for this purpose.

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The upper gallery of Hagia Sophia is laid out in the shape of a horseshoe enclosing the nave until the apse. These areas were for female worshipers. The west gallery was for the Empress and her entourage. A circle of green marble set into the ground marks the site of her throne.

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The south gallery was used for meetings by the officials of the Patriarchate. It is separated from the west gallery by the Marble Door, placed here at an unknown date. The panels of the door are covered in plant, fruit and fish motifs. One side of the door represents heaven and another one hell.

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The south gallery contains the most famous mosaics of Hagia Sophia: the mosaic of Constantine IX Monomachos and Zoë Porphyrogenita, the mosaic of the John II Komnenos and Irene of Hungary, and the Deesis mosaic.

The first of the mentioned mosaics depicts Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1050) and his wife Zoë Porphyrogenita, praying to the Christ Pantocrator. The latter is wearing a dark blue robe, as was the custom in Byzantine art, holding the Bible in his left hand and giving his blessing with his right hand. The Emperor is offering a purse, a symbol of imperial donation, while the Empress is holding a scroll, a symbol of the donations that she has made. The heads of the figures replace earlier ones, which could have shown Zoë with Emperor Romanus III Argyros (1028-1034), her first husband, or with Emperor Michael IV the Paphlagonian (1034-1041), her second husband. Another theory is that the mosaic was made for an even earlier emperor and empress.

Mosaic of Constantine IX Monomachos and Zoë Porphyrogenita (mid-11th century)

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Another mosaic depicts Emperor John II Komnenos (1118-1143) and his wife Irene praying to the Child Christ, held by the Virgin. The Emperor and the Empress are wearing garbs embellished with gemstones. The Emperor is holding a purse, a symbol of the imperial donation, while the Empress is offering a scroll. The Empress is shown plaited blond hair, rosy cheeks and grey eyes, revealing her Hungarian descent. The image of their teenaged son Alexios was added to the panel after he became a co-emperor with his father. It is a clearly more realistic representation than the earlier mosaic of Constantine IX Monomachos and Zoë Porphyrogenita.

Mosaic of John II Komnenos and Irene of Hungary (1122)

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The Deesis mosaic is the most famous mosaic of Hagia Sophia. It depicts John the Baptist and Virgin Mary, both in three-quarters profile, praying to the Christ Pantocrator on behalf of mankind. Probably created immediately after the eviction of the Latins from Constantinople in 1261, it is a magnificent example of the Palaiologan Renaissance. It is widely considered to be the finest mosaic in Hagia Sophia, because of the softness of the features, the humane expressions, and the tones.

Deesis mosaic (after 1261)

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In a dark corner southwest of the northern gallery there is also the mosaic of Emperor Alexander. Because of its hidden location, it is one of the most intact mosaics in Hagia Sophia. It depicts Emperor Alexander (912-913) in full regalia, holding a globus cruciger in his left hand and the akakia in his right hand.

Other important elements of the upper gallery of Hagia Sophia include the cenotaph of Enrico Dandolo and a Viking graffiti. The cenotaph of Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who led the assault on Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, is located opposite the Deesis mosaic. He died in 1205 and was buried in Hagia Sophia, but his tomb was destroyed in the Ottoman era and its exact location is unknown. The Viking graffiti can be found in the middle section of the south gallery. It is from the 9th century and it says, ‘Halvdan was here’. Vikings were part of the elite unite of the Byzantine army, known as the Varangian Guard.

The Islamic elements in the interior of Hagia Sophia include the mihrab, the minbar, the loges for the Sultan and the muezzin, and several tiled elements here and there. The great circular calligraphic panels hanging on columns are the biggest of its kind in the Islamic world (7.5-8 metres in diameter). The names of Allah and Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandchildren of Muhammad are written on them. They were made in 1847-1849 by Kazasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi.

The two large Hellenistic alabaster urns that can be found on the two sides of the nave were brought here from Pergamon by Sultan Murad III (1574-1595).

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42. Hagia Eirene

First Courtyard of Topkapı Palace, Cankurtaran
Original church – early 4th century; current church – 548, altered in 753

Hagia Eirene is one of the three churches in Constantinople named after God’s attributes. It is dedicated to Divine Peace, the other two churches being the more famous Hagia Sophia (dedicated to Divine Wisdom) and the virtually unknown Hagia Dynamis (dedicated to Divine Power).

Hagia Eirene stands on the site of a pre-Christian temple. It was later replaced by a small church, which may be the first church ever built in the city. During the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337) that church was rebuilt and enlarged and dedicated to Hagia Eirene. It functioned as the cathedral of Constantinople until the inauguration of Hagia Sophia in 360. It is possible that the First Council of Constantinople was held here, highlighting its status as the most important church of the city, after Hagia Sophia. It resumed its status as the cathedral of the city after the burning down of the first Hagia Sophia in 404. The both churches were damaged during the Nika riots in 532.


Justinian I rebuilt Hagia Eirene in 548, some time after the construction of the third Hagia Sophia. That church was a notable example of an early Byzantine domed basilica. It had three naves separated by columns. Columns supported vaulted galleries on three sides. A dome stood on the site of the current dome.

Notable Early Christian elements that survive of in Hagia Eirene include the synthronon and the atrium. The synthronon, i.e. built-in benches in the semicircle of the apse for the clergy, is unique in the city. Unique is also the atrium that precedes the narthex. There are no other surviving churches with an atrium in Constantinople.

Synthronon of Hagia Eirene


Atrium of Hagia Eirene


Hagia Eirene was heavily damaged by the earthquake of 740. It was reconstructed in around 753 by Emperor Constantine V. The church got a new dome, with a diameter of 15 m and raised upon a drum of 20 windows. The western part of the nave was covered with an elliptical domical vault. The barrel vaults supporting these new domes were extended out over the aisles, establishing a cross-domed units on the gallery level.

The reconstruction kept the original basilica plan on the ground level. The arcades flanking the nave were refurbished with reused reliefs, column shafts and impost capitals from Justinian’s church. Several capitals show monograms of Justinian and Theodora. Marble panels of the old chancel screen can also be found, notably under a column, displaying a monogram of Constantine V.



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Constantine V had the interior of the church decorated with mosaics and frescoes. Because the reconstruction of the church took place during the Iconoclast period, these mosaics and frescoes can be seen as important examples of Iconoclastic art.

The most outstanding of these is the mosaic of the cross of the apse semi-dome. The cross stands on a three-stepped base, is outlined in black tesserae, and has flared ends with teardrop motifs. The arms of the cross curve downward to conform to the concave shape of the apse, but are perceived as horizontal when seen from the ground.

The technical quality of the mosaic is exceptional. The background of the cross is made of gold foil sandwiched between glass tesserae. Here and there, tesserae made in the same technique with silver foil have been inserted. The tesserae are unusually tiny and very closely set. The use of the silver tesserae softens and lightens the golden background to achieve a more expressive quality of the divine light. This style became very influential in Constantinopolitan art. The apse mosaic of Hagia Sophia (867) is a famous early example.

Apse mosaic of Hagia Eirene (753)



Other mosaics of Hagia Eirene include the inscriptions of verses from the Old Testament on the bema arch. These were later partially reproduced, together with the cross, at the Hagia Sophia of Thessaloniki.

Traces of frescoes can be found in the south aisle and the diaconicon of Hagia Eirene.




There are remains of secondary buildings to the north and south of Hagia Eirene. Their original function is hard to determine, but it is sometimes thought that some of them belong to the now lost Hospital of Saint Sampson, which, according to written sources, connected Hagia Eirene to Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Eirene is one of the very few Byzantine churches of Istanbul that was never converted into a mosque. Soon after 1453 it was enclosed within the walls of the Topkapı Palace, and it was used as an armory by the Janissaries and a warehouse. Later it functioned as a military museum for a long time. The Ottomans raised the floor level, slightly altered the arcades, filled in some openings, added side chambers, and replaced the cross on top of the dome by the crescent moon. The general structure of the church, however, remains as it was in the Byzantine period.