What can be said about a structure that has changed the face of architecture, religion and humanity? I think Procopius, in his works De Aedificis really captured it when he wrote "For it soars to a height to match the sky, and as if surging up from amongst the other buildings it stands on high and looks down upon the remainder of the city, adorning it, because it is a part of it, but glorying in its own beauty." The Hagia Sophia captivates like a crown jewel in Istanbul's skyline, and the moment I stepped inside I lost my breath.
Parts of the current Hagia Sophia structure were constructed in the 6th century, initially as an Orthodox basilica. The history of centuries and cultures is evident in the various stages of transition over the years: in the 9th and 10th centuries, the Byzantines installed ornate gold Christian iconographic mosaics, and in the 15th century the Ottomans converted it into a mosque and the minarets and fountains were added. In 1935 it was converted into a museum. The domes are truly amazing; I spent time taking them in as a whole, then really looking at each piece to appreciate the artistry in the details. Over a thousand years of travelers and worshipers are not wrong: this is one of the world's unmissable places to see.
Now for some boring stuff: It's closed on Mondays so plan accordingly. Admission we remembered as being expensive but not unreasonable. You can take photos and videos. We visited in January so there was no lineup or oppressive crowds, but they were doing renovations to some very small parts. All signage is in English and the audioguide was interesting and worth the price.
The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) was erected in Byzantine style between 532 and 537 AD on behalf of Justinian I, the Byzantine Empereor. Until the middle of the 15th century the building was used as an Eastern Orthodox Church. The only exception was during the Latin occupation from 1204 until 1261 when it was a Roman Catholic Church.
After the Ottoman conquest in 1451, Hagia Sophia was converted into the city's first imperial mosque. Minarets and other Islamic elements were added to the edifice.
On the order of the first Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Hagia Sophia was transformed into a museum.
In December 2012 the entrance fee to the museum was 25 TRY. Besides the impressive architecture I especially liked the mixture of Christian and Islamic elements in the museum.
The Hagia Sophia is located on top of the small hill in the touristy Sultanahmet district. While the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) can be found on the southern side of the Sultan Ahmed Square, the Hagia Sophia stands on its northern side.
The interior narlex is the ante-chamber to the main prayer room. It contains a mosaic (that I, unfortunately, appear to have failed to take a picture of) that includes an unknown emporer as well as Mary and the Archangel Gabriel. The Imperial Gate, is the middle of nine doors in the interior narlex that leads into the main prayer room. It was reserved exclusively for the Emperor during the Byzantine era.
While the grounds of Hagia Sofia are not nearly as impressive as the building or its interior, they do include some interesting structures that merit at least a bit of the visitor’s time. Apart from the various bits of ruins (likely the product of successive earthquakes), the grounds include two türbe, or Ottoman mausoleums (one for Selim II and one for Murat III), a fountain for ghusl or ritual cleansing before prayer, (18th century), a medrese or religious school, a library and a soup kitchen or imaret. All of these structures point to the continued importance of Hagia Sophia for the Ottomans, even after the construction of Sultan Ahmed Mosque across from it. As well, given that the structures were all built within a specific time period, their architectural styles provide an interesting contrast to the various layers of style within the cathedral/mosque.
It is somewhat miraculous that mosaics of any form survived to this day inside Hagia Sophia. None of the structure’s various patrons and owners, apart from the 20th century Republican museum curators, have been particularly kind to them. At first they faced iconoclasm, the intellectual movement in the latter half of the first millennium CE that preached against Christian imagery; then the sacking of the cathedral by Latin Crusaders in the 13th century; then covering with plaster by the Muslim Ottoman rulers; and finally being coated with paint by well-intentioned but ill-advised Italian and Swiss restorers in the 19th century. While some mosaics include only floral or vegetal patterns and thus would have been acceptable to Muslim decorators, most of the impressive pieces are of Christian iconography and were necessarily covered in the process of conversion from a church to a mosque. They often include hammered gold and demonstrate a high level of craftsmanship in both the complexity of the Biblical scenes portrayed and the details used, including the Greek inscriptions. Today most of them can easily be seen, although there are some tensions regarding the destruction of later Islamic works in order to recover the earlier Christian ones. Their vibrant colours and crisp outlines are all thanks to the tireless work of an American Byzantine research group that, in the 1930s, sought to painstakingly restore the hidden artwork after the structure’s conversion to a museum.
The upper galleries of the mosque were reserved for women, particularly for the ladies of the court and for the Empress. In both Orthodox Christianity and Islam (outside of the Grand Mosque in Mecca), men and women are separated in church, and thus special sections must be maintained for the female faithful. The Empress’s loge and the surrounding, horseshoe shaped galleries above the nave-cum-prayer hall provided an ideal spot at which the women would be able to observe the proceedings during religious rites without mingling with the men. The fact that this too was a place in which royals would be present means that it is no less sumptuously decorated, with a large marble door marking the entrance to synods, or ecclesiastical councils, as well as a special green stone for the placement of the Empress, and numerous mosaics.
It is hard not to be impressed by the interior of Aya Sofya. While mosques do tend to be airy and more open than churches (owing not only to the lack of seating, but also to the fact that worshippers pray together, shoulder to shoulder), this particular structure takes this phenomenon to a new extreme. The massive dome, a tribute to the wonders of Byzantine architecture and engineering, is supported by an equally massive and cavernous interior. The dome was initially supported by columns that were taken from the Greek ruins at Baalbek, in Lebanon, but, over the years, these were reinforced with more buttresses and ribs, added by Byzantine and Ottoman architects alike, as the materials used in the construction of the walls of the church were not suitable for the weight of the dome. Beyond the grandeur of the dome, however, there is also the spectacular decoration of the rest of the interior. These include wall sections made from marble, as well as urns and objet-d’art from similar semi-precious materials, and the famous calligraphic paints at the meeting of the wall and the dome added after the conversion of the cathedral to a mosque.
For Istanbul, Hagia Sophia is iconic. The image of this magnificent fourth century structure concretizes the ethos of Istanbul and its ability to go from appropriation to harmonization to institutionalization as if the trend were organic and natural. Hagia Sophia was initially built as a Christian basilica in the 4th century, but was destroyed twice before the current structure was erected in the sixth century under the auspices of Justinian I, who ordered a larger church than the ones that had been planned initially. The massive dome was its most impressive characteristic, and one that caused repeated headaches for the church’s overseers, as it was damaged through the various earthquakes that struck the region. Occasionally, whole smaller domes and sections would collapse, requiring the emperors to retain the services of famous engineers and architects from throughout the Empire to rebuild and fortify the structure. Immediately after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, the cathedral became Aya Sofya mosque, and a small minaret was added to the grounds. Another minaret was added at the turn of the 15th century, and after the loss of a tower during an earthquake, Mimar Sinan added two more during the seventeenth century. Throughout the Ottoman period, the various Sultans not only sought to add decorative elements to the now-mosque, but also contracted the services of various architects to help repair, restore and fortify the structure against the earthquakes that periodically ravage Istanbul. In the 18th and 19th centuries, further additions were made with a medrese, kulliye (social space), library and mausoleum. Finally, with the fall of the Ottomans, the Republican government turned the cathedral-cum-mosque into a museum in the 1930s, which it remains to this day.
Upon completion in 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia's ceilings and dome were entirely covered in glistening mosaics. Some of these original mosaics, in the form of plain golden background, or polychrome decorations have withstood the test of time in patches inside the basilica. Although they are believed to have included images, none have survived as they would have been destroyed along with all of the icons in 726 AD, the beginning of the iconoclastic period in which the use of imagery in worship became prohibited. The end of this period was signalled in 867 AD by the completion of the mosaic of Virgin and Child on the half dome of the apse, which has miraculously survived to this day. Other notable mosaics were gradually added to the church over the next few centuries and many of them have survived, scattered around the Hagia Sophia. Unfortunately, during sacking of Constantinople in 1204 AD, the Crusaders vandalised many of the basilica's mosaics and most were never repaired thereafter. During the Ottoman conversion of the basilica into a mosque, the surviving images were either covered in plaster or further destroyed, while no effort was made to repair the slowly decaying decorative ones. Instead, a 19th century restoration saw decorative motifs drawn over plaster to replace the fallen mosaics (see attached photos). It was only during the conversion of the mosque-church into a museum in the early 20th century that the few remaining mosaics were fully uncovered and restored.
For additional photos of the mosaics, check out the travelogue: "Hagia Sophia Mosaics".
What a lot of history lives in those walls!
Most of the best and worst of human story is documented in this church. Several times built and destroyed, the final building, expected to be (and maybe it was) the biggest and most beautiful church in the world, was built in the 6th century.
But story kept flowing over it. Eight centuries later, the Ottomans conquered the town, and transformed it in a muslin mosque.
In 1935 Ataturk, at last, transformed it in a cultural museum. Now, with its christian decorations emerging from the Muslim coverings, it becomes a monument to tolerance and religious coexistence. Impossible to miss...
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