How the Byzantine Empire Rose, Fell, and Created the Glorious Hagia Sophia: A History in Ten Animated Minutes

If you only know one fact about the Roman Empire, it’s that it declined and fell. If you know anoth­er, it’s that the Roman Empire gave way to the Europe we know today — in the full­ness of time, at least. A good deal of his­to­ry lies between our twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry and the fall of Rome, which in any case would­n’t have seemed like such a deci­sive break when it hap­pened. “Most his­to­ry books will tell you that the Roman Empire fell in the fifth cen­tu­ry CE,” says the nar­ra­tor of the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above. “This would’ve come as a great sur­prise to the mil­lions of peo­ple who lived in the Roman Empire up through the Mid­dle Ages.”

This medieval Roman Empire, bet­ter known as the Byzan­tine Empire, began in the year 330. “That’s when Con­stan­tine, the first Chris­t­ian emper­or, moved the cap­i­tal of the Roman Empire to a new city called Con­stan­tino­ple, which he found­ed on the site of the ancient Greek city Byzan­tium.” Not only did Con­stan­tino­ple sur­vive the bar­bar­ian inva­sions of the Empire’s west­ern provinces, it remained the seat of pow­er for eleven cen­turies.

It thus remained a pre­serve of Roman civ­i­liza­tion, aston­ish­ing vis­i­tors with its art, archi­tec­ture, dress, law, and intel­lec­tu­al enter­pris­es. Alas, many of those glo­ries per­ished in the ear­ly thir­teenth cen­tu­ry, when the city was torched by the dis­grun­tled army of deposed ruler Alex­ios Ange­los.

Among the sur­viv­ing struc­tures was the jew­el in Con­stan­tino­ple’s crown Hagia Sophia, about which you can learn more about it in the Ted-ED les­son just above. The long con­ti­nu­ity of the holy build­ing’s loca­tion belies its own trou­bled his­to­ry: first built in the fourth cen­tu­ry, it was destroyed in a riot not long there­after, then rebuilt in 415 and destroyed again when more riots broke out in 532. But just five years lat­er, it was replaced by the Hagia Sophia we know today, which has since been a Byzan­tine Chris­t­ian cathe­dral, a Latin Catholic cathe­dral, a mosque, a muse­um (at the behest of sec­u­lar reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk), and most recently a mosque again. The Byzan­tine Empire may be long gone, but the end of the sto­ry told by Hagia Sophia is nowhere in sight.

Relat­ed con­tent:

An Intro­duc­tion to Hagia Sophia: After 85 Years as a Muse­um, It’s Set to Become a Mosque Again

360 Degree Vir­tu­al Tours of the Hagia Sophia

Hear the Hagia Sophia’s Awe-Inspir­ing Acoustics Get Recre­at­ed with Com­put­er Sim­u­la­tions, and Let Your­self Get Trans­port­ed Back to the Mid­dle Ages

Hear the Sound of the Hagia Sophia Recre­at­ed in Authen­tic Byzan­tine Chant

French Illus­tra­tor Revives the Byzan­tine Empire with Mag­nif­i­cent­ly Detailed Draw­ings of Its Mon­u­ments & Build­ings: Hagia Sophia, Great Palace & More

Istan­bul Cap­tured in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images from 1890: The Hagia Sophia, Top­ka­ki Palace’s Impe­r­i­al Gate & More

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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