“ Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) was built in Constantinople (now Istanbul) between 532 and 537 under the auspices of Emperor Justinian I. Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul. Telephone: 90-212-5220989 | 90-212-5221750. Open daily except Mondays , 09:30- „
The Hagia Sophia (also known as the Aya Sofya) is one of Istanbul's must see attractions. Situated in the Sultanahmet district of the city, it is close to the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace and the T1 tram line. Admission is TL25 (£9) for adults. Under 12s are free. We arrived about 12.30pm and had a short wait to purchase tickets. My guide book (Lonely Planet Istanbul) was very good and I used that as an idea of what I wanted to see.
The Hagia Sophia is almost 1500 years old. It was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and consecrated as a church in 537. Architecturally it is a very impressive building, moreso inside rather then out, and was the inspiration for many other buildings in the city including the blue Mosque. There were a lot of religious mosaics commissioned but when the church was converted to a mosque in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet, many of these were covered up (rather than destroyed, thankfully). The minarets were not added until the sixteenth century. In 1935, President Ataturk declared it a national museum.
The main part of the ground floor is what was the original nave. When I visited much of the left side was covered in scaffolding and I believe that has been there a number of years as a colleague visited a few years ago, and it was still the case then. As busy as it was, it is still visually impressive as most of the work is above your head. In each corner of the dome in the nave is a mosaic image of, what I think, are angel wings. Apparently these are seraphs, a six winged angel. When first done they would not have had faces, as this was not the done thing at the time, and one I was looking at (through my camera zoom) had a gold pattern on instead. The original mosaics would have been glass with gold leaf and as the building is quite well lit, certainly would have gleamed. As some of these were destroyed, they have been recreated as frescos. Later mosaics (post ninth century) had faces on them. Be warned when taking a photo of the dome above your head, that it is quite awkward to get a central shot of it, especially one in focus!
There are a number of windows in the building and the chandeliers hang low from the high ceiling keeping it very well lit. The chandeliers were likely from the Ottoman period, they would have used oil lamps originally.
Upstairs you can see further mosaics and frescos. I was quite impressed with the differing patterns on the marble (see picture) but on closer inspection, some of these designs have been painted on. One important mosaic, of which very little survives is to one side (South) of the upper galleries. It depicts the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist and Christ. There is a painting next to it, which shows how it should have looked.
You are allowed to take photos without flash throughout the Hagia Sophia. As the building is generally well lit this is not normally a problem. Many of these later mosaics show the an emperor with Christ. For example there is one with Emperor John Comnenus (apparently) and his wife Irene either side of the Virgin Mary with a baby Christ giving blessings in return for donations to the church. This is 13th century.
One of the more famous mosaics is the 11th century Christ Enthroned with Empress Zoe and Constantine IX. Empress Zoe was one of very few Byzantine women who ruled in their own right. The original picture depicted her first husband, upon his death, Zoe erased it and replaced it with her new husband. He also died and Zoe ruled in her own right. However as a weak ruler she wed again to Constantine and it is he that we can see today. He remains, no doubt, because he outlived her. This is quite a hard mosaic to get a good picture off as it is in a dark corner with a window behind it on one side meaning the light isn't very good.
Another significant one is the Virgin and Child in the apse at the very front of the church. Not an easy one to get a good angle for a photo, as it the closest point you can get to it, is by leaning around a wall by the aforementioned mosaic of Zoe (above) or by using a zoom lens from some distance away. The original mosaic and background comes from the 9th century and has been heavily restored.
One mosaic I was keen to see, as featured in my guide book, was that of Constantine the Great, the Virgin Mary with baby Christ and Emperor Justinian. I had trouble locating it in the Hagia Sophia but it is as you exit, and will be behind you (they have a mirror above you so that as you walk out you can spot it). The idea was probably that you see it as you go in, but it is exit only here now. It depicts King Constantine offering the baby the city of Constantinople (Istanbul's original name) and Emperor Justinian offering the Hagia Sophia and was dome in the 10th century.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit here. If you love this period of history and its architecture then this is a must see. Even if you don't, it is really interesting to see a building so old and (relatively) well maintained. Some members in our party thought it looked a bit shabby compared to the more modern Blue Mosque, but the latter was built about 1000 years later. They have a café on site and a gift shop, I didn't visit either. Neither are things that Istanbul is short of. Allow 90 minutes
In answer to the title it has in fact been all three!
Following my visit to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul directly opposite is the Hagia Sophia known in Turkish as the Aya Sophia. If you think the blue mosque is impressive then you will be absolutely astounded by the beauty found inside the Hagia Sophia. It was originally a Christian church then a mosque and now a museum. The orthodox meaning of Hagia Sophia is the church of the holy wisdom. These two great buildings are often depicted in photos of Istanbul.
History of the Hagia Sophia.
Throughout time there have been three churches built on the site. The first church was built in and around 300AD during the reign of Constantius II but it was burnt down in riots in the city. The second church built on the site was subsequently burnt and destroyed again in 531AD. The only remains of the second church are some carved reliefs which are on display in a pit at the main entrance of the basilica. They depict the lamb of god and the apostles.
The third church was built in 532 by the Emperor Justinian. He promised to build a church like no other and he certainly achieved that in fact some of the other churches and mosques designs are based on the same design with massive domes. It was here that Coronations took place. Although it was the patriarchal seat of Christian Orthodoxy in Turkey at one period in time it also came under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church.
Several earthquakes and fires caused cracks in the massive structure and the vast dome eventually collapsed. Massive buttresses were added to the structure to give it more strength and stability. The Hagia Sophia was used as a place of worship up to the great invasion by the Ottoman Sultans. People who were unable to fight and try to protect Istanbul from the Muslim invaders sought refuge in the Hagia Sophia but once the city had fallen they were either enslaved or murdered.
In 1453 once Constantinople was in the hands of the Ottomans, Sultan Mehmed allowed his troops to pillage the city and take what they wanted for three days after which he would ride into the city and any other treasures were deemed to be his. He immediately ordered that the church be converted into a mosque. Many Christian artefacts were pillaged but some were smuggled out to other churches around the globe including the stone from the tomb of Jesus, Mary's milk, the shroud of Christ and bones of several Saints who had been buried in the church. The Christian Icons were removed and the mosaics on the walls were desecrated, the eyes of the saints gauged out and their faces destroyed and then the walls were plastered over. The Muslims then installed Arabic writings from the Koran all over the church. There are massive Arabic inscriptions on round plates on each of the Domes supporting pillars. Four minarets were erected and the gold cross on the top of the dome removed and replaced by a brass crescent to signify that it was now a mosque.
The Aya Sophia had been the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years right up until it was overtaken in size by the cathedral in Barcelona. The Church remained a mosque right up to 1935 until it was closed due to its poor state. The new president of Turkey opened the building to the public but not as a church but as a museum.
Entering the Aya Sophia from the main entrance you walk into a very large and long corridor. In this corridor murals and richly decorated mosaics adorn the walls in gold, blues, reds and marble adding to the decoration of this vast corridor. There are three doors leading into the main church. The middle and largest doorway was for the Sultans use only. Others would have had to enter by the two doors on either side of the Sultans door.
Once through the Sultans doorway the sight that greets you is absolutely breath taking and you would have to see it yourself to believe it. Words cannot describe the beauty; photos do not do it justice either. This vast, massive, enormous cavernous domed church is overwhelmingly gigantic. I have never been in such a massive open space as this. It really takes your breath away and although I hate the word awesome it really is awesome. You feel quite miniscule standing in this beautiful great abyss. This great hall is 250 feet by 220 feet square and dome itself is 180 feet high.
There is a mixture of Christian and Islamic art and furnishings throughout the building. The walls are highly decorated and adorned with golden coloured mosaics and hues of other colours but the overwhelming colours are blue and bright yellow gold. These wonderful mosaics apparently cover an area of 4 acres just to give you an idea of how vast this building is.
The domes too are magnificently decorated and the main supporting arches were painted with angels. Unfortunately only one of the angel's faces is preserved as the others have been ruined by having their faces gauged out. All the Christian symbols and mosaics were plastered over but since the re opening of the museum some very slow and painstaking restoration work has taken place to expose the full beauty of this building.
Looking towards the place where the high altar would have been there is the Mirab which is facing in the direction of Mecca. There is also a marble pavilion on the right of the great hall. Massive chandeliers hang from the ceiling which adds a somewhat mystique to the already beautiful building. There is certainly enough to keep you entertained on the ground floor however on the second tier is where we next headed.
The second tier would have housed the Sultans wife who would have had to walk up a fairly steep and uneven ramp to reach the second tier. It was only on my way down that I fully appreciated how far the trip up had been as I had been eagerly excited to reach the second level so the walk up did not seem so far. Once reaching the second tier the balcony surrounds the whole of the open space below. The Sultana would have sat on the left hand side of the mosque. On the right hand side of the upper tier is where we were heading. There are some intricately carved balconies surrounding the second tier and all the way round the perimeter give superb views of the massive hall below giving a bird's eye view and appreciation of how big the Hagia Sophia really is.
Towards the right side there is a carved marble doorway which was the entrance to Mamuts library and leads you to some very impressive mosaics of Christ and the blessed virgin Mary. They have been painstakingly restored however there of course is some damage to them. The faces luckily on some of them have been preserved quite well under the plaster used to hide them. The best feature is that of the mosaic of Virgin and child which is right over the Mirhab.
After descending the great ramp you are back in the great hallway entrance where you then exit out of the warriors vestibule into a square that contains a very ornate ablutions fountain.
I think that Ataturk was a brilliant leader in as much that he has opened this fabulous building for all of us to enjoy rather than leaving it in a state of near ruin. Over the years it has undergone restoration works so that we can enjoy all that is within this beautiful place. I must admit aesthetically it does not appear as beautiful as the blue mosque from the outside but then it was built many, many years before the blue mosque.
Opening times :
09:00 to 16:30.
Prices for entry are 10 TYL which is about £7 and another 10TYL if you want to go to the upper level.
Although it is no longer a working church or a mosque I still believe that you should have a modicum of decorum so as not to offend others by not wearing revealing clothing.
Would I recommend it?
Of course absolutely I would recommend it is as being one of the most important buildings to see in Istanbul along with the Blue mosque. These two great monuments complement each other greatly.
Of all the spectacular sights in Istanbul, and there are many, the Haghia Sophia (also known as the Aya Sofya) tops the list for me. Built as a church in the 6th century under Justinian I and converted into a mosque in the 15th century after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, no other building so fully captures the history of the city, it's turmoil and change over the centuries and it's power of adaption.
Haghia Sophia is now a museum, having been converted in 1935. The inside defies words, with the huge dome holding the prize as the largest in the world from the time it was build for around 1000 years. Interesting too is the layers of decoration that can be seen inside-the original church had mosaics as well as abstract design which were largely covered with plaster when the building was converted to a mosque. However, this was never fully completed and some of the mosaics have been uncovered leaving a fascinating mixture of the original Christian design and the later decorative arab script. It is the layering of design here that shows the fascinating history of the city as a whole and it's position as a crossroads of east and west.
Open 9am-6pm with an entrance fee of 20 YTL, guides are also available at the entrance.
Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) was built in Constantinople (now Istanbul) between 532 and 537 under the auspices of Emperor Justinian I. Sultanahmet Square, Istanbul. Telephone: 90-212-5220989 | 90-212-5221750. Open daily except Mondays