I can’t remember when I first heard about Hagia Sophia, it must have been way back in my high school years, but since then I’ve always wanted to go see it. It took me 40 years to finally get to Istanbul, the City of the World’s Desire and of many wonders, so I find it appropriate to dedicate an entire post to this fascinating monument.
A Brief History of the Church
The first thing that probably comes to mind when you talk about Istanbul is Hagia Sophia, the former Greek Orthodox basilica, turned later into an imperial mosque and now a museum. Hagia Sophia’s history is as unusual as it is sad. Nothing remains today of the original church built by Constantine the Great in the 4th century. The church was destroyed several times before being rebuilt in its present form by emperor Justinian I in 537.
Hagia Sophia is an absolute masterpiece, perhaps the greatest example of Byzantine’s architecture, with beautiful mosaics and marble pillars.
After its completion, Justinian is said to have exclaimed: “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” And indeed, when seeing the grandeur and beauty of this church, you cannot help but think that it is indeed one of the most majestic churches ever built.
The cathedral remained the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for over 900 years, until 1204 when it was unmercifully attacked and desecrated by the Crusaders, who also replaced the Patriarch of Constantinople with a Latin bishop. This event marked the division of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. After the attack, most of Hagia Sophia’s riches have been taken to Rome and can be seen today in the treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
Hagia Sophia remained a functioning church until 1453, when Constantinopole was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, amazed at the beauty of the church, converted it into his imperial mosque. All the faces depicted in the church’s mosaics have been covered in plaster as the Islamic religion forbids the visual depiction of figures.
Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1934, when under the Turkish president Kemal Atatürk was secularized and turned into the Ayasofya Museum.
Being the principal mosque of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia served as a model for many mosques, such as the Blue Mosque or the Süleymaniye Mosque. The name “Hagia Sophia” has nothing to do with the female name. Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom, so the the true meaning of Hagia Sophia is “The Church of the Holy Wisdom.” The four minarets of the church have been built at different times and by different sultans. The first one, the brick minaret, was erected by Mehmed II, the second one was added by Bayezid II, and the last two by Selim II.
In 1985 Hagia Sophia was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO. A few years later a major restoration project began that seems to be on-going, so be prepared to see scaffolds all over the church.
What to see at the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is located in Sultanahmet, opposite the Blue Mosque and it is open every day, except Mondays. The winter visiting hours are from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and in summer from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Before you enter the church you should take time to admire the impressive building from the outside, walk around and enjoy the stunning architecture. Once inside, you will notice that Hagia Sophia has a classical basilica plan. The main ground floor is shaped as a rectangle and is covered by a central dome. The dome was the largest ever constructed and it held the record until Michelangelo’s dome on top of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The dome was once decorated with gold mosaic tiles, but currently it is covered with Koranic inscriptions.
To reach the upstairs gallery, you will have to walk on a stone paved ramp. On the upper floor you will be able to enjoy the best views of the entire main floor and see some of the surviving mosaics that once decorated the entire church.
Today, the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) is officially a museum. It is indisputably Istanbul’s main draw and Turkey’s most-visited monument, whose neutral status symbolizes the secular nature of the modern Turkey. But last week NBC News reported that hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the former church to pray and show their desire that Hagia Sophia be turned into a mosque.
So what do you think: should Hagia Sophia be turned into a mosque again?