Often referred to as the eighth wonder of the World, the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) in Sultanahmet is easily one of Istanbul’s most impressive sights.
The Hagia Sophia, with its innovative architecture, rich history, religious significance and extraordinary characteristics has been fighting against time for centuries, is the largest Eastern Roman Church in Istanbul. Constructed three times in the same location, it is the world’s oldest and fastest-completed cathedral. With its breathtaking domes that look like hanging in the air, monolithic marble columns and unparalleled mosaics, is one of the wonders of world’s architecture history.
Hagia Sophia is considered a unique monument in world architecture, and its magnificence and functionality has been a good example in construction of countless Ottoman mosques. Hagia Sophia with its exceptional history constitutes a synthesis between east and west. This monument is one of the wonders of the world that has remained intact until the present day. One can find many attractions in Hagia Sophia – interesting forms of Byzantine architecture, mosaics of the Christian period as well as structures added during the Ottoman era.
Hagia Sophia has been a Christian place of worship for 916 years, then converted into a mosque and served Muslims for 481 years. Hagia Sophia Museum was opened in 1935 and ever since it has been attracting thousands of visitors every year.
According to Byzantine historians (Theophanes, Nikephoros, Grammarian Leon) the first building of Hagia Sophia church was established during the reign of Constantius I (324 – 337 AD). It was a basilica with a wooden roof, and it was burned down during a revolt. Nowadays there is no evidence of this structure.
During the reign of emperor Theodosius Hagia Sophia was built for the second time and opened to the public in 415 AD. The basilica was again burned down during the Nika Revolt in 532 AD. Some ruins of this building were discovered during excavations in 1936. There were stairs indicating the entrance of the building, columns, capitals and other fragments of the building.
Emperor Justinian (527 – 565 AD) wanted to build a church bigger than two previous ones, which would represent the power and magnificence of empire. The new building of Hagia Sophia was designed by two famous architects of that era – Isidoros from Miletos and Anthemios of Tralles. Many columns, capitals, marble and colourful stone were brought to Istanbul from various ancient cities in Anatolia and used in construction works of Hagia Sophia.
The works were commenced on December 23, 532 AD and completed on December 27, 537. The new building consisted of a large central nave and two side aisles, separated by columns, apse, inner and outer narthex. The size of the inner space of basilica is 100 X 70m and it is covered by the magnificent dome (diametre 30.31 m), supported by the four large piers, 55 m high.
Besides the unique architecture of the building, the mosaics are also important artefacts of the period. The oldest mosaics – gold gilded with geometrical and floral designs – may be found in the inner narthex as well as in side naves. Figural mosaics (with images of Jesus Christ, Virgine Maria etc.) from 9th – 12th centuries are located on Emperor Door, apse, exit doors and upstairs gallery.
After the conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the so-called “Turkish period” started, and several repairs were made in Hagia Sophia.
Buttresses were added to the Hagia Sophia’s sides to prevent it from collapse during the reign of Murad III by the historical architect Sinan who would be inspired by the ancient edifice, and fusing its style with Islamic art and aesthetics in a series of Grand Mosques. The Hagia Sophia, whose domes and walls collapsed many times during the Eastern Roman period, never collapsed again after the renovations of Sinan the Architect despite many great earthquakes in Istanbul.
The art works surrounding the mihrab includes the best samples of Turkish pottery and calligraphy. The sure is taken from the Koran inscribed on rounded plates of 7.50 m diametre by Kazasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi, a famous Ottoman calligrapher. The names of Allah, Muhammed, Ömer, Osman, Ali, Hasan, Ebu Bekir and Hüseyin are inscribed there. On the sidewalls of mihrab there are plates written and granted by Ottoman sultans.
From the time of Fatih Sultan Mehmet Khan, every sultan strived to beautify the Hagia Sophia even more, and the Hagia Sophia was transformed into an entire complex with structures such as mihrab, minbar, rostrum, minarets, sultan’s office, shadirvans (fountain providing water for ritual ablutions), madrasah, library, and soup kitchen. In addition, great importance was attached to the interior decorations of the Hagia Sophia Mosque during the Ottoman period. Hagia Sophia was adorned with the most elegant examples of Turkish arts such as calligraphy and tile art and the temple gained new aesthetic values. Thus, Hagia Sophia was not only converted into a mosque but also this common heritage of humanity was preserved and improved. It continued its existence with the addition of Ottoman architectural elements, however Hagia Sophia Mosque declared as a museum with the Council of Ministers Decision dated 24.11.1934 and served as a “Memorial Museum” held by General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums Ministry.
Tombs of Sultan Selim II, Sultan Mehmet III, Sultan Murat III as well as some of their relatives, fountain of Sultan Mahmut I, primary school, soup kitchen, library, Sultan Abdülmecit’s meeting place and the mosque timekeeper’s (astronomer’s) house may be found in the territory of Hagia Sophia Museum. All of the above mentioned objects, especially the tombs with their interior design, pottery and architecture are excellent examples of Ottoman tradition.
All visitors, Muslims and non-Muslims are allowed to enter Hagia Sophia Mosque. Visitors should remove their shoes before stepping onto the mosque’s carpets. Avoid visiting Hagia Sophia Mosque at prayer times (five times a day), especially noon praying on Fridays. Women should wear a head covering when entering to the Hagia Sophia. Headscarves are available at the Hagia Sophia Mosque entrance without a fee. Photography is allowed, however do not take pictures of people who are in the mosque to pray. Stay silent during your visit, dont run and stand in front of anyone praying. There is no entrance fee to visit Hagia Sophia Mosque, but donations are welcome.