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Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia in IstanbulHagia Sophia means "Divine Wisdom" in Greek, this was an Orthodox church dedicated to holly wisdom, not to a Saint Sophia as some people wrongly call it today. Turkish people call it Aya Sofya, it's a former Byzantine church and former Ottoman mosque, now located in Sultanahmet neighborhood being one of the most important museums of Istanbul considered as a World Heritage by UNESCO. It is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.

The first church of Hagia Sophia was built on the same site in the 4th century by Constantine the Great and renovated by his son Constantinus II in 360 AD. It was a small wooden church in Constantinople. Unfortunately nothing remained from it because it was destroyed during a fire in 404 AD.

After the destruction, a second and larger Hagia Sophia was built at the same location in 415 AD by the emperor Theodosius II. This second church was also burned down during the Nika riots of 532 AD. Some of its columns, capitals, and the stairs can be seen today in the courtyard of the museum.

Finally, the third Hagia Sophia, the one that you can visit today, was built by emperor Justinian I between 532-537 AD over the remains of the previous basilica. The emperor spent almost all of his treasure, 10.000 people worked in its construction under the supervision of two architects; Anthemius of Tralles (modern day Aydin city) and Isidorus of Miletos. After completion, Justinian entered the church and he shouted "Solomon, I have outdone thee!", referring to King Solomon. The church became the glorious symbol of the Byzantine Empire and the largest church of Christendom in the world. For almost 1000 years the Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Church councils and imperial ceremonies were held here.

The gigantic central dome over a rectangular plan was built using special bricks; 12 of them weighted as one regular. But it was still too heavy therefore this early dome collapsed during several earthquakes so a smaller one was built. In the days when there was no steel used in construction, large domes had to be supported by massive pillars and walls, thus the dome of Hagia Sophia was supported by four huge piers in order to take off its pressure on the side walls and distribute it to the ground. Fourty small windows around the dome and other windows of the church let enough light into the interior.

The interior walls of the church were decorated with gold mosaics, the floors with white marble, and column capitals with the monograms of Justinian and Theodora. Marbles and columns taken from the remains of earlier civilizations from all parts of the Empire were used as building material, these pieces came from Baalbek, from Pergamon, and from the Temple of Artemis as well.

The upper galleries were used by important people or for church councils during the Byzantine period, and lower part was used by common people. When the Hagia Sophia was a mosque, the galleries were reserved for the women during prayers, and lower floor was used by the men.

In 1204 the church was sacked by the Fourth Crusade, many precious relics were removed from the church and taken away. This act definitively divided the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Some of these relics can be seen today in the treasury of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice, Italy. Enrico Dandolo, the Doge of Venice who commanded Latin forces during the invasion of the city, is buried inside the church on the upper gallery.

On May 29th, 1453, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and sultan Mehmet II ordered to convert the church into a mosque. Because he admired the art, the sultan didn't want these great mosaics to be destroyed so he plastered them over and the Ottomans made their own floral designs or geometrical patterns, as well as Coranic calligraphy on top of the plaster. In order to use it as a mosque, Mihrab and Minbar were added inside, a fountain for the ablution was placed in the courtyard, and minarets were built in different periods in the outer corners of the building. A Koranic school, soup kitchen, library, madrasa, the clock-winding house, and sultan's mausoleums (belonging to Selim II, Murat III, Mehmet III, Mustafa I and Ibrahim) are amongst the structures added by the Ottomans. Also, large buttresses were built by Turkish architect Sinan in the 16th century to support the walls holding up the dome and to save the building from the earthquakes. The sultan's loge was added in the 19th century during the restoration of the mosque by the Swiss origin Fossati brothers.

Aya Sofya remained a mosque for almost 500 years until 1935 when Atatürk converted it into a museum so everybody could come to visit this architectural masterpiece and admire both Christian and Muslim art. Prayer rugs were removed from the marble floor and experts came from all around the world to remove some of the plaster in order to uncover spectacular Byzantine mosaics. It was, and still is, an important task during the restorations bringing to light all the major Byzantine mosaics but also preserving the Islamic art and calligraphy to maintain a balance between both Christian and Islamic cultures.

The Hagia Sophia has a classical basilica plan measuring 74.67 x 69.80 meters (245 x 229 feet). The dome is not perfectly round having a diameter of 31.87 - 30.87 meters (104.5 - 101.3 feet), it's 55.60 meters (182.4 feet) high from the floor.

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Interior visits

The entrance to the museum from the courtyard is the original west gate, next to it you can notice the remains of the earlier (the second) basilica. There are three gates giving access to the first corridor (outer narthex), than five gates to the inner narthex, and than nine more gates to the central nave. The middle doors are bigger than the side doors because these were used by the imperial family members.

As you first enter the nave, there are two round urns made of alabaster on the right and on the left. These were added during the Ottoman period around the 16th century, and the marble was obtained from Pergamum.

On the floor of the nave, unfortunately covered with the scaffolding today, there is a square area paved with colored marble pieces. It was named as "Omphalion" where Byzantine emperors used to be crowned. It was beleived that this was the center of the world, which was "flat" back then.

Interior of Hagia Sophia - click to enlargeToday, a huge scaffolding is placed in the center of the nave for restorations of the main dome which is undertaken since many years. Four angel wings decorate the four pendentives which support the dome. The chandeliers for candels or oil lamps are from the Ottoman period. There are eight wooden and leather big medallions (7.5 m - 24.6 ft diameter) with Arabic inscriptions on them, these are names belonging to, starting from the right of the apse going to the left: Allah and Muhammad (over the apse); the first four Caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, Osman and Ali (at the four corners of the dome); and the two grandchildren of the Prophet, Hasan and Husayn (in the nave).

Many of the gold mosaics were vandalized during the Latin rule between 1204-1261, and some were destroyed during the earthquakes. But today, some nice mosaics are in the upper gallery and some on the ground level, over the main gates. These gold mosaics are mostly from the 10th and 11th centuries. For example, just above the entrance gate at the narthex is a mosaic with Jesus Christ and emperor Leon VI pleading for divine mercy, with medallions of Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel. Another mosaic depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus Child can be seen above the apse, which on the right has a partly damaged Archangel Gabriel's mosaic. In the upper gallery to the south, an important mosaic depicts "Deesis" scene, known as Universal Justice, with Christ Pantrocrator flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. To the end of the same gallery there are two more mosaics; On the right you can see Virgin Mary and Jesus Child with Emperor John Comnenus II and Empress Irene together with their son Alexis. On the left there is Jesus Christ with Empress Zoe and her third husband Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus. Another fine mosaic can be seen over the exit gate, with Virgin Mary and Jesus Child in the center, Constantine the Great on the right presenting a model of the city of Constantinople, which he founded, and Emperor Justinian I on the left presenting a model of Hagia Sophia church, which he built.

The apse has a Mihrab and Minbar added during the Ottoman period, but originally during the Byzantine period the altar, the pulpit and the ceremonial objects were all plated with silver and gold and decorated with ivory and jewels, which were removed by the Crusaders in the 13th century.

There are a total of 107 columns on the ground floor and the galleries. The marble column capitals have fine deep carvings with the imperial monograms of Justinian and Theodora. In the northern corner of the church is a special column called as "sweating column" or "crying column", made of white marble brought from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. A bronze belt encircles the lower part of this column and there is a hole big enough to insert a finger. There are many legends and stories about the column; because of some drops of water coming out from the hole people beleived that this column was "crying" or "sweating", so this was a miracle.

A ramp on the northern corner gives access to the upper galleries from which you can have a magnificent view of the central nave and see the original mosaics in the southern wing.

The bronze doors at the exit to the south are partially embedded in the floor and date back to the 2nd century BC, they were brought from a pagan temple in Tarsus.

The museum is open between 09:00 - 16:30 except on Mondays, with longer opening hours during the summer months.

Aya Sofya Müzesi
Sultanahmet - Istanbul
Tel: (+90 212) 522 17 50 and 528 45 00
Admission: 30 TL

Click here for high resolution photo gallery of the Hagia Sophia. You can also check the Google Map of the museum at this link.

Please note that admission fees, opening times or days of closure of the museums might be changed without prior notice, or that museum might be closed for restorations. To be certain on the closure days or opening times, you can call that museum directly (country code for Turkey is +90) or contact me to double check.

Hope to see you soon in Istanbul.

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