It’s always interesting to know of the history behind the most iconic buildings located around the world. Emperors, wars and centuries later, these buildings still stand tall and proud, attracting millions of visitors every year.
Hagia Sophia, Turkey
Since its original construction in 360 AD, the function of Hagia Sophia has varied over the years.
It was the Byzantine Emperor Constantius who first commissioned the construction. Then, Hagia Sophia was served as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. During the construction, Istanbul was originally known as Constantinople, named after Constantius’s father, Constantine I who was the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire. The original structure had a wooden roof, but in 404 AD, it was burnt to the ground during the reign of Arkadios (395 to 408 AD). It was rebuilt by his successor, Emperor Theodosios II and the construction was completed in 415. Again, the roof was made of wood, a major flaw in the years to follow. When Emperor Justinian I ruled from 527 to 565, revolts against him resulted in Hagia Sophia being burnt to the ground for the second time.
This time, the church was damaged too far to be repaired, so under the orders of Emperor Justinian, the original structure was demolished in 532. Two famous architects, Isidoros von Milet and Anthemios von Trallos were commissioned by the emperor to build a new basilica. So the third structure was built in 537, which is the one we see today. As Hagia Sophia was then a Greek Orthodox Church, it was considered the central church of the Byzantines and would remain so for its first 900 years. New emperors were crowned there too.
The fate and function of the church changed when the Ottomans captured Constantinople in 1453. Lead by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed, the city was renamed Istanbul. And as the Ottomans were Muslims, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Many of the mosaics, originally Orthodox themed, were covered with Islamic calligraphy. The medallions hung on the columns now feature the Prophet Muhammad, his two grandsons, the name of Allah and the first four Caliphs.
The Gateway Arch, USA
Sitting along the west bank of the Mississippi River is the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, also known as the St. Louis Arch. The city is considered as the ‘Gateway to the West’, named so in the nineteenth century when westward expansion occurred in the US. The archway is part of the Gateway Arch National Park and is in memory of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and also the West’s opening to early settlers, after the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–06) which occurred nearby. The park is also home to the Old Courthouse, where Dred Scott, who was an enslaved individual, sued to gain his freedom. The case went up to the Supreme Court and added fuel to the debate of slavery as the country inched towards civil war.
Designed by the Finnish- American architect Eero Saarinen in 1948, the arch was built between 1963 and 1965. Standing 192 metres tall, the legs of the monument stand apart at a distance equal to its height. There are two trams, each able to seat five people at a time, that take the visitors up to the viewing deck at the top. Sixteen windows face both the east and the west, giving great a great view of the city, land and river. The Museum of Westward Expansion at the base of the arch features displays that show life in the 1800s. Exhibits also portray the construction of the arch.
Dancing House, Prague
The Dancing House in Prague is situated at a location of significant history. When the US bombed Prague in 1945, the house where the iconic building is now located at was destroyed. It would remain so until 1960. Václav Havel’s family co-owned the plot next to the site. Havel had spent most of his life there. In 1986, Vlado Milunić, an architect from the Czechoslovak milieu, came up with an idea- to build a project at the place, which he talked over with Havel. During the Velvet Revolution a few years later, Havel was elected the president of Czechoslovakia. His authority gave wings to Milunić’s project on the site. Although Havel wanted the site to be a cultural centre, it was not to be.
Nationale-Nederlanden, a Dutch insurance company, sponsored the construction. Milunić was chosen as the main designer and was asked to partner with another architect, Jean Nouvel. However, Nouvel rejected the proposal because he deemed the space too small and it was Frank Gehry, a Canadian-American architect, who accepted the plan. The bank provided almost unlimited funding.
The building was to denote Czechoslovakia’s transition from a communist regime to a democratic parliament. The unusual shape of the house is attributed to de-constructivist architecture. Ninety nine concrete panels of different dimension and shape support the shape. A large metal structure, nicknamed Mary, is built on top of the house.
Musée d’Orsay, France
The Musée d’Orsay has quite a bit of history- it was actually a railway station before being converted to a museum. The railway station, Palais d’Orsay, was built in 1810 before being burnt by Paris Commune in 1871.
After the disaster, Victor Laloux, a French architect of the period, along with two other architects designed the terminus for the French Railway Company, Compagnie du Chemin de fer d’Orleans. The aim was to welcome visitors for the 1900 Universal Exhibition. An elegant stone front was built, along with more modern aspects. Laloux implemented lifts for heavy luggage, platforms below the ground and lifts for passengers (separate from those for luggage). The station was built in such a way that it faced the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries. The ground floor also held a reception service. Besides being a transit for passengers, the station was also a main site where associations and political parties held banquets and meetings. The Second World War saw the station being used as a dispatch centre for sending parcels to prisoners. It became a reception centre for prisoners during the Liberation.
The decision to convert the railway station into a museum was made only in 1977, by President of the Republic Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, although nine years would pass until President François Mitterrand would open it. Today, the museum contains the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings in the world, which includes the works of Berthe Morisot, Degas, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir and Gauguin, amongst others.
Dresden Frauenkirche, Germany
The original Dresden Frauenkirche was constructed between 1726 and 1743. Although the location was predominantly Catholic, the church was a Lutheran parish church. It was designed by George Bähr who was Dresden’s city architect. During the time, placing a stone dome weighing 12, 000 ton on eight supports was a remarkable feat. The stone dome, called the Stenerne Glocke or stone bell was the church’s most notable feature and dominated the city for the next two centuries.
In 1945, Anglo-American forces began attacking the city and after withstanding two days’ worth of attacks, the Frauenkirche’s dome collapsed. The altar was among the few parts that was left standing in the ruins. For the next forty- five years, the church would remain in ruins under the East German communist rule. After the Second World War, citizens took it upon themselves to collect and organize what remained of the building so that a construction would be possible in the future. However, in 1966, the destroyed church was declared a memorial of the war. Commemorations were held on the anniversary of the attacks. In 1985, the city decided to rebuild the church, but it was only in 1990 that a fundraiser was begun to do it. The entire project became a reality when donations poured in from donors, bank financers and patrons. Work began in 1994 and it was based on the original design of the 1720s. Apart from the dome, the church was built with the original materials, using modern technology. Each stone was painstakingly placed as the original design. Visitors can easily identify the older stones by their darker colour caused by the fire and weather. The exterior of the church, including the dome and the cross, was completed in 2004. The next year, the construction of the interior was completed.
The Forbidden City, China
The Forbidden City in Beijing, China, was the former abode of the Yongle Emperor, Zhu Di. Built during the Ming Dynasty, construction took place from 1406 to 1420 and the former imperial palace is surrounded by a number of spectacular gardens, parks and temples. The Forbidden City was named so because during emperors’ rule, nobody was allowed to either enter or leave the site without the emperor’s permission.
Construction of the city lasted for fourteen years and it is believed that more than a million workers worked on the site. The entire complex houses 980 buildings with a total of 8886 rooms. The palace, built in traditional palatial architecture of China, is a symbol of the wealth of the Chinese Emperors. It was the home of the emperors starting from the Ming Dynasty until the end of the Qing Dynasty in 1924. After serving as the home for 24 emperors, the Forbidden City stopped being the centre of politics in China upon the abdication of Puyi (last emperor of China) in 1912. Puyi remained in the palace until his eviction in 1924. Since 1925, the complex has been under the charge of the palace and in 1987, it was declared a World Heritage Site. The palace, now a museum, contains the largest collection of ancient wooden structures. The collection of artefacts and artwork now displayed here was built up over the years by the emperors.
Bran Castle, Romania
Bran Castle in Romania is better known to the world as Dracula’s Castle, a named earned after Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But no, the original castle has nothing to do with that mentioned in Stoker’s book, which describes the castle as a crumbling structure housing Dracula. Despite having nothing to do with the book, the medieval castle does indeed have ancient weapons, armour and underground passage, apart from the eerie sounds that can be heard in the castle time to time.
The castle was built between 1377 and 1388 by Teutonic Knights on the land in which Vlad the Impaler is said to have ruled. Vlad was notorious for his barbaric ways of dealing with enemies- after torturing them, he would impale their bodies on tall poles and place them on the battlefield as a warning to his other enemies. He would also destroy his enemies’ sources by burning the crops and poisoning their water supplies. He was exiled after his first reign. Speculations claim that Vlad was imprisoned in the castle for around two weeks.
The castle was gifted to Queen Marie in 1920. Her daughter, Princess Ileana, inherited it upon her death. The princess converted it into a hospital during the Second World War. The communist regime captured the castle in 1948. In 2006, it was returned to the princess’s son, Dominic von Habsburg, Princess Ileana’s son. Now, Bran Castle is a museum displaying the furniture and art collection of Queen Marie.