To aptly describe the Hagia Sophia mosque and museum in Istanbul's old city part is impossible. The Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) is a structure that defies belief and has to be seen with the naked eye to fully understand its beauty. From the 6th-century construction as a Christian cathedral and one of the most extraordinary Byzantine structures ever built to the 20th-century conversion into a Turkish secular museum, the Hagia Sophia transitioned from the Ottoman Empire's ashes into one of Turkey's most visited tourist attractions.
From the 9th century Byzantine art featuring Christ to the 19th century Ottoman restoration by Ottoman sultan Abdulmejid, the architectural pieces, colourful stones, and pendentive dome, this building truly is an architectural gem. The Hagia Sophia mosque sits in the Istanbul city known as Sultanahmet. The name means holy wisdom, and the Hagia Sophia's dimensions are enormous, over 260 feet long and 230 feet wide. The dome is 110 feet across and rises about 175 feet above ground level. So, what is there to know about this beautiful and stunning building of Istanbul?
Glory of the Hagia Sophia Mosque and Museum
History and Timeline of the Hagia Sophia
Construction of the Hagia Sophia complex structure started in the 6th century A.D. when rioting began in Constantinople. Byzantine Emperor Justinian I was in power and was highly unpopular. The rioting spread as the rioters tried to get Emperor Justinian out of power by capturing him. The people were angry about the taxes and wanted to be free of him; however, with the help of troops, he prevailed. Anthemius and Isidore the Elder were deployed to build the new Church. They built the Hagia Sophia on the original site of a burnt-out church with great speed. The construction, though, was plagued with problems, mainly with the roof.
About twenty years later, the roof fell, and Isidore the Younger was brought to rebuild it. The roof has undergone minor repairs and is still standing today. During the 14th century, the Hagia Sophia suffered massive damage during earthquakes. The 14th century was also when the Ottomans attempted to capture Constantinople, and the city endured repeated attacks. By 1453, they succeeded, and Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmed II.
Sultan Mehmet thought that the Catholic Church was superb and converted the building into a Mosque for Muslims to pray. It might also have been done to send a global message. By conquering the Byzantine Empire and converting their most incredible Church into a mosque, the message from Sultan Mehmet was clear. Shortly after conquering, another minaret was added, possibly by Ottoman sultan Bayezid II, and Sultan Abdulmejid also completed many renovations.
The style of the Hagia Sophia mosque, also called Aya Sofya in Turkish, particularly the dome, influenced Ottoman architecture, particularly the Blue Mosque, built in Istanbul during the 17th century. However, by the 18th century, the grandeur of the Sultan Mehmet era was over. Cracks started appearing in Ottoman circles, and finally, in 1923, after the Turkish War of Independence, they were disbanded.
At this point, the religious affairs office of the new Turkish government turned the Hagia Sophia, called Aya Sofya in Turkish, into a museum. It evolved into one of Turkey's most significant tourist attractions. Still, in 2018, the prime minister of Turkey called for the religious affairs office to convert the Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque. This happened in 2020, and today, the museum is also a fully functioning place of worship.
Central Dome and Semi-Domes
The central dome's dimensions are awe-inspiring. The original Hagia Sophia dome had a diameter of 33 metres (108 feet) and height of 55.6 metres (182 feet). To put this into perspective, the dome of the Pantheon in Rome, a renowned architectural marvel, has a diameter of 43.3 metres and height of 43.2 metres (142 feet). The Hagia Sophia dome was remarkable and remains a symbol of architectural prowess.
The construction of the pendentive dome overhead of the prayer hall and complex structure required innovative engineering and construction techniques. The weight of the massive dome is supported by a series of triangular pendentives, arched openings and semi-domes that redirect the load to massive piers below. The use of lightweight materials, like pumice stone, and the incorporation of arched openings and semi-domes allowed for the constructing of such a large dome without excessive weight and pressure on the lower structure.
Semi-domes are integral to Hagia Sophia's architectural layout and contribute significantly to the structural and aesthetic appeal. The central dome is surrounded by four semi-domes in the north, south, east, and west. These semi-domes transition from the square base to the circular shapes of the central dome.
The semi-domes play a vital role in distributing the weight of the central dome and transferring it to massive piers below. Without the support of these semi-domes, the main dome's weight would exert too much pressure on the lower structure, risking structural instability. The semi-domes help evenly distribute the load and ensure the stability of the building.
The upper floor gallery, known as the "Empress's Loge," was significant from the 6th century as a cathedral and retains historical significance. Access is reached via a narrow stone staircase, a space to pause and reflect on centuries of stories and events unfolding within the Hagia Sophia's walls. The upper floor gallery above the prayer hall offers a bird's-eye view of the Hagia Sophia's vast interior. You can truly appreciate the central dome and immense space beneath it from this vantage point.
One fascinating element is the mosaic fragments on display. These fragments provide insight into the original interior decoration of the Hagia Sophia museum. Visiting the upper-floor gallery offers a unique and serene experience. The soft light filtering through the windows casts tranquil ambiences, making it ideal to soak in history and spirituality.
The Best-Preserved Mosaics of Beauty
One pleasing aspect of the Hagia Sophia is the Christian imagery and best-preserved mosaics dating from the 9th century until the 12th century. The Christian Church was one giant canvas for painters of that time, and Christian mosaics adorned the ceiling. These days, the Christian mosaics are covered with a curtain during prayer time but uncovered for tourists afterwards.
The best-preserved mosaics sit in the southern gallery, including the "Zoe Mosaic. " Often called the "Empress Zoe Mosaic" or the "Mosaic of Empress Zoe and Christ Pantocrator," the mosaic depicts three figures - the central figure of Christ Pantocrator and two more miniature figures on either side. Christ is portrayed holding a book (likely representing the Gospels) and raising his right hand in a gesture of blessing. To Christ's left stands Empress Zoe, and to the right, Constantine IX Monomachos, who was the co-emperor and husband of Zoe during her reign.
Empress Zoe, a prominent and influential 11th-century Byzantine empress, had multiple marriages and involvement in state affairs. Christ Pantocrator represents the divine authority. The presence of Empress Zoe and Emperor Constantine IX alongside Christ underscores the close relationship between the Byzantine Empire and the Church, where the emperor was seen as God's representative on Earth. The mosaic features a beautiful blue background and gold leaf details, common in Byzantine art. The Zoe Mosaic is historically significant because it provides insights into political and religious life during the 11th century.
John the Baptist Mosaic: The 9th or 10th century "John the Baptist Mosaic" sits in the southern gallery and portrays John the Baptist as bearded with a staff and a cross. He is often shown with a halo or a nimbus, signifying his holiness. Like others, the John the Baptist Mosaic was created in Byzantine artistic traditions. His representation underscores the Hagia Sophia's religious importance and role in the Byzantine Christian world.
Deesis mosaic: The 13th-century Deesis Mosaic offers glimpses into beautiful Byzantine art and its intriguing history. Belonging to a broader artistic theme called a "Deesis," which means "supplication" in Greek, the Deesis Mosaic, in the Hagia Sophia's upper gallery on the Church's eastern side and south side of the central dome, overlooks the nave. The Deesis Mosaic depicts religious scenes featuring Christ Pantocrator at the centre.
Christ is shown in a traditional Byzantine depiction, holding a book in his left hand and raising his right hand in a gesture of blessing. He is surrounded by the Virgin Mary (Theotokos) and John the Baptist. The Deesis Mosaic represents the concept of intercession, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist imploring Christ for mercy and salvation on behalf of humanity. The Deesis Mosaic and other mosaics reflect Byzantine religious faith and artistic achievements.
Stone Floor of the Hagia Sophia
The 6th-century stone floor is not just an ordinary floor but a historical canvas in a complex structure that has witnessed human history, religious transitions, and architectural marvels. The stone floor belongs to the original 6th-century construction, making it over a millennium old and witness to imperial ceremonies, echoes of religious sermons, and footsteps of countless visitors and worshippers throughout time.
The intricate geometric patterns and design portray excellent Byzantine craftsmanship and play essential roles in enhancing acoustics. These days, however, the prayer hall's stone and marble floor is covered with a green prayer carpet. Regardless, in some places, before entering the prayer hall, you can see the marble floor and imagine the tales of old who have walked in those footsteps.
The Hagia Sophia Mosque
The Hagia Sophia, a structure with a complex history, holds a unique and revered position as a mosque in contemporary times. The transition from cathedral to mosque, museum and back to a mosque again symbolises the complex interplay between history, culture, and religion. Today, the Hagia Sophia mosque reflects enduring religious significance and rich historical heritage, while soaring minarets, interior calligraphy, and the prayer niche facing Mecca reflect the role of Muslim prayers.
Visitors can witness the blending of Christian and Islamic art and architecture inside the prayer hall, as mosaics depicting Christian figures coexist with Islamic calligraphy and geometric designs. The Hagia Sophia's return to a mosque in 2020 sparked a global conversation about its significance in modern Turkey. Today, the prayer hall where both devout Muslims attend prayer times and curious tourists can come to experience spiritual and historical resonance. Visitors can attend prayer times, observe stunning architecture, and appreciate the coexistence of past and present, which makes the Hagia Sophia captivating and multifaceted.
Ottoman Tombs at the Hagia Sophia Mosque
Sultan Selim II: Sultan Selim II, also known as Selim the Sot (the Drunkard), was the son of Suleiman the Magnificent and reigned from 1566 to 1574. In a serene corner, his tomb is a simple yet elegant structure with a graceful domed top and traditional Ottoman architectural details. The tomb pays tribute to a ruler known for leisure and contributions to Ottoman culture.
Sultan Murad III: Sultan Murad III, who ruled from 1574 to 1595, found his final resting place alongside his father, Selim II. His tomb is a graceful domed structure adorned with intricate tile work, a characteristic feature of Ottoman architecture. The tomb reflects a sultan known for patronising the arts and cultural flourishing during his reign.
Sultan Mehmed III: Sultan Mehmed III, who ruled from 1595 to 1603, is interred near the Hagia Sophia grand mosque, near his predecessors. Like the others, his tomb exhibits the elegance and artistic finesse characteristic of Ottoman architecture. Sultan Mehmed III is notable for being the sultan during whose reign the city of Constantinople was captured.
Other Landmark Buildings to see in Istanbul Old City
The Hagia Sophia sits in Sultanahmet-Ahmet Square, in Istanbul's old city. This remarkable area encapsulates the city's rich history, culture, and architectural splendour. Stepping into this district is like stepping back in time, where echoes of empires and civilisations resound through the centuries. There are also many other tourist attractions to see.
Topkapi Palace, once the home of Ottoman sultans, is a vast complex of museums and courtyards. Explore opulent rooms in the exquisite Harem section and view invaluable artefacts like the Spoon maker’s Diamond and Topkapi Dagger. Topkapi Palace Gardens also offers splendid sea views. An underground marvel, the Basilica Cistern is an ancient water storage system with striking columns and dimly lit pathways. It's a surreal and atmospheric place to explore.
The neo-Byzantine-style German fountain, a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm II, symbolises German-Ottoman friendship. It's a lovely structure to admire on your way to the Hagia Sophia. While not as intact as before, the Hippodrome retains remnants of historical significance, including the Obelisk of Theodosius and Serpent Column. Just a short walk away from Istanbul's old city part, the Grand Bazaar is Turkey's largest and oldest covered market. This bustling labyrinth of shops sells everything from textiles and ceramics to jewellery and spices.
The Blue Mosque, officially Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is an architectural gem across the square from the Hagia Sophia. Renowned for stunning blue tile work and distinctive silhouette, the mosque reflects classic Ottoman architecture and acts as a place of prayer. Constructed in 1616 during the reign of Sultan Ahmed I, the mosque features an elegant design and interior blue Iznik tiles, earning the nickname "Blue Mosque." A visit to this mosque and the Hagia Sophia Museum and mosque in Istanbul is the perfect morning.