Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

 “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” – Emperor Justinian upon the completion of the Hagia Sophia

Where our hotel was situated, it meant that we were able to walk through the plaza separating the Hagia Sophia from the Blue Mosque every single day. And it was definitely no hardship to admire the red and yellow domed structure with its graceful minarets. It is a gorgeous building on the outside, and in the inside…you get the feeling why it was called Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom in Greek). If the air of sanctity and awesomeness is still tangible today, can you imagine what it was like in its heyday? Inside the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish), has had a colourful history as the world’s largest cathedral (until a bigger one was built in Seville in 1520, that is). The current structure was built by the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian, starting in 537 and it was a Greek Orthodox patriarchal cathedral until 1453 (except for a 57 year period in the 13th century when it was a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Latin Empire). It was the third church on that site – the previous two had been destroyed by rioters in various uprisings. From 1453 to 1931, it was a mosque after Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. They loved the building so they had it converted. Then in 1935, it was secularized in the Ataturk era and made into a museum. And it doesn’t stop there – apparently there have been calls recently to convert it back into either a mosque or a church. I, for one, am crossing my fingers that this never happens.

As you can imagine, the constant change of hands meant the poor building saw itself stripped or modified over and over again. Not much is left of the Second Church – there are a few marble blocks left that you can still see. If there is anything else, we won’t ever know since further excavation has had to be stopped because the integrity of the current Hagia Sophia was at risk of being damaged. The Third Church, the structure we see today, would have been awe-inspiring in its heyday. Emperor Justinian had it decorated with items from all across the empire: columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, porphyry stones from Egypt, Thessaly green marble, Bosporus black stone, and Syrian yellow stone. It would have been filled with icons, religious relics, bells, an altar, gold, and mosiacs depicting everyone from Jesus to Mary to saints and angels. Also, not only was it the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, it was also the site of Byzantine Imperial ceremonies (ie. coronations).

In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans and they converted the Hagia Sophia. They conducted extensive renovations, not only because of the conversion process, but because the cathedral was rather dilapidated at that point. Once the renos were completed, Aya Sofya became the first imperial mosque of Istanbul. The renos included the addition of carpets, crescents and minarets, a medrese, a library, fountains, giant medallions, and more treasures. It also fixed the structural issues that had plagued the building since it was built. And it also included the removal or plastering over many of the Christian mosaics because Islam forbids the depiction of living things.

As a museum since 1935, the Hagia Sophia saw its marble floors uncovered and many of the mosaics restored. But extensive conservation did need to be carried out because of severe water/humidity damage. Much of the work has been completed since 2006 but there is still more work to be done. While we were there, work was being carried out to strengthen the building and its minarets because Turkey is expecting “the big one” in terms of earthquakes. They are hoping that that pre-emptive strengthening will ensure the building doesn’t collapse in such an event. There are also some mosaics that deliberately have not been uncovered because if that were done, it would be at the expense of equally important historical Islamic art. It is a delicate balance, giving equal consideration to both styles of religious art, and one that I think is pretty well done so far. I hope restorers and the Turkish government continue to resist the temptation of making the building more one religion than the other!

For me, and many others, the reason why I loved the Hagia Sophia was because it was a fascinating opportunity to see two religions and various styles juxtaposed in the same building. Here are some of the things to see inside:

Domes: Covered in various styles, especially reflected by some Hexapterygon (six-winged angels) and giant disks inscribed with Islamic religious names. The domes are also cool because of the multiple windows allowing light to reflect against all the curves and bounce around.

The Spot: Imperial coronations happened here! The Spot

Urns: These were used for ritual purification. They were created during the Hellenistic period and apparently each one was carved from one block of marble! Apparently, one can often find a cat lounging here. Urn and Kitty

Doors, windows, naves: plenty of these!

The Loge of the Empress: this is in the Upper Gallery, this was an area reserved for the Empress and her court ladies. There is a round, green stone marking the spot where her throne would have stood. Of course, we stood on it ourselves. Empress Spot

Random Decorations: Just wander the place – you will see all sorts of fantastic items and materials. Besides the shiny mosaics of religious and imperial personages, there are other mosaics in geometric patterns, paintings, and marble of various colours.


Tombs: Various Sultans and their family members are buried in here. I believe those marked with a turban are male and those without are female.

Did anyone find the Viking graffiti? I didn’t!

8 responses to “Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia

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  3. Some of the upward shots really give you a sense of the size of the place!

    I agree with you completely I hope it remains a museum, becoming either a church or a mosque will upset that delicate balance you were speaking of between the two art traditions in a devastating way!

    Did you get to see the library? Does it still actually have books in it?

    You commoner, how dare you stand in the place of the Empress! 🙂

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