This is an extract from the Reading Materials in English that are available in the English and Education section of the website of the Liberal Party of  Sri Lanka, 

The entire text of Historical Buildings by Goolbai Gunasekara, covering twelve famous constructions, is now available on that website. 

Hagia Sophia


Hagia Sophia is a building that has changed much over the years. It is in Istanbul, which was earlier called Constantinople, and before that Byzantium. Byzantium had been a Greek city, established by Greeks who went into the Black Sea to trade. They needed a stopping place on the way, at a place where they could control entry into the Black Sea. 

Byzantium was therefore situated at the narrowest point of the straits that join the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, and separate Europe from Asia. Istanbul then developed over the centuries into a unique city, with half of it in Asia and the other half in Europe. It is at the crossroads of two great continents and many great cultures. 

Map of the Roman Empire


Byzantium was conquered by the Romans when they established their empire over the entire Mediterranean region, and it became more and more important as Roman commerce with Asia developed. At the beginning of the 4th century AD the Roman Emperor Constantine made it the capital of the Empire. He renamed the city Constantinople. He also became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the empire, and in 307 AD he built a church in his new capital. It was on the site of that church that another great emperor of Constantinople, somewhere around 537 AD, built a much more elaborate church, that was known as Hagia Sophia. 

Justinian I


Justinian (527-563 AD) was an unusual King. He was married to a beautiful woman named Theodora. She had been a performer in the circus before she became Queen. During a riot the old church was destroyed. Justinian set about rebuilding the church on a grand scale, for which he hired two of the most famous architects of that period. 

Constantinople, we must remember, was the center of European and Christian civilization at that time. The Roman empire had been divided into two by one of Constantine’s successors, since it faced many threats and it was thought two smaller areas would be easier to administer and defend. But towards the end of the 4th century AD the western part of the Roman empire had been taken over by various tribes from Northern Europe who were comparatively less civilized. Though Rome still continued a Christian city, Constantinople was clearly the dominant centre of Christian culture at that time, and Justinian tried to symbolize this importance through his new church. 

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia, showing Islamic elements in the ceiling.


Hagia means Holy in Greek, and Sophia, which is also used as a girl’s name, means wisdom. Hagia Sophia, which therefore means ‘The Church of Holy Wisdom’, is the most beautiful building of Byzantine culture. It has a huge dome which is set on beautifully proportioned walls that create a sense of simple elegance. The inside of the church, or the cathedral as the most important church in a city is called, was brilliantly lit up. It sparkled with gold pictures. Precious stones and metals were used to decorate the inside walls. The dome of the church can be seen from the Bosphorus, the river that flows through the city of Istanbul. 

Depiction of the Hagia Sophia's appearance during Byzantine times


Hagia Sophia was one of the world’s most impressive cathedrals, and it is now one of the world’s most impressive mosques. In 1453 Constantinople was conquered by the Turks. Hagia Sophia’s statues, icons and Christian pictures were taken down. The great church was transformed into a centre of Muslim prayer, though it is smaller than many famous mosques since it is still contained within its original walls. 

Constantinople continued as the capital of the Turkish Empire for nearly 5 centuries. However, Turkey lost its Arab Empire after the First World War, and also what remained of its European conquests. Though it retained Constantinople and a small area of land in Europe, the new government thought it better to move the capital to the Asian part of Turkey. 

Ankara therefore became the capital of Turkey, while Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. It is now not as important politically as it was for nearly two thousand years, but Istanbul is still considered one of the great cities of the world, given its history and its geographical location. The church/mosque of Hagia Sophia is its best landmark. 


Grammar and Vocabulary 

  1. Give in your own words the meaning, as used in the passage, of the words that are highlighted.
  2. To what do the pronouns or other words in italics refer?
  3. Divide the proper nouns in this passage into those that name people, those that name places, and those that describe a special type of place or person. Which proper nouns are used as adjectives? Are there any proper nouns that name things?
  4. Select five passive voice constructions in this passage in which the agent can be identified, and turn them into active voice sentences.
  5. Find five passive voice sentences in which the agent is not or cannot be specified, and turn them into active voice sentences by using suitable words to indicate agency.

 Comprehension and Further Activities  

  1. Mark Turkey on a map, along with three countries in Asia that became independent of Turkey in the 20th century. You may look up an encyclopaedia to find the required information.
  2. Identify three countries in Europe that became independent of Turkey in the 19th century. In which countries in Europe is Islam still a dominant religion?
  3. Do you know of any other important ruler who changed his religion? Draw a chart that compares that ruler and Constantine in terms of time and place and, if you can find the information, reasons for and results of the change.
  4. Find out more about Justinian and write a brief essay on his significance.
  5. Write down briefly in your own words the main point of each of the paragraphs in this passage. Which paragraphs deal mainly with the city and which with the church?
  6. Read about Istanbul in an Encyclopaedia and write brief paragraphs about two other important buildings of that city.
  7. Read about the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and write a brief essay on the impact of this on Europe.