For me, the first thing that comes to mind when talking about Istanbul, or Turkey, is definitely Hagia Sophia. I can’t remember when I first heard about this magnificent edifice. It was probably way back, during my high school years. But ever since that day, visiting Hagia Sophia became a dream. It took me 40 years to finally get to Istanbul, but eventually my dream of visiting the marvelous Hagia Sophia came true.
Hagia Sophia’s History
Hagia Sophia had more than its fair share of troubles. Earthquakes tried its resilience, fires almost burned it down and Crusaders assaulted it and stole its treasures.
The original basilica was built by Emperor Constantine the Great in 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple. Emperor Justinian I built it in its present form in 537. After finishing the construction Justinian said: “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” And indeed, when you see the grandeur of this church you can only agree that Hagia Sophia is one of the most majestic churches ever built.
Hagia Sophia remained the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for over 900 years. In 1204, the Crusaders unmercifully attacked Constantinople and desecrated the church. They 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. All these treasures are in display today in the treasury of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
For 57 years, the Crusaders took charge of the city and designated Hagia Sophia a Roman Catholic cathedral. When the Byzantines/Orthodox recaptured the city, the cathedral became again an Orthodox places of worship. But the Orthodox could not support the church which by the early 1400s, had fallen into ruin.
Hagia Sophia in Modern Times
Hagia Sophia remained a functioning church until the conquest of Constantinople, in 1453. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, amazed at its beauty, converted the basilica into his imperial mosque. And since the Islamic religion forbids the visual depiction of figures in mosques, he covered all the beautiful mosaics and paintings with plaster.
In 1923, Turkish president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk drove foreign countries out of Turkey and secularized the country. The Orthodox wanted their church returned to them. Muslims wanted to keep it as their mosque. Atatürk, however, decreed it a museum – Hagia Sophia (Ayasophia) Museum– so everyone could visit it.
And so it remained until July 2020, when a Turkish court decided to restore its status as a mosque. The court stated that the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Mosque into a museum was unlawful and in violation with the will of its endower, Sultan Mehmed II.
As expected, this started a lot of controversy because for centuries Christians of all denominations fought for centuries for the possession of this historical religious monument. The Turks are also divided on the issue, with a majority who supported the reinstatement of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, and a minority who wants to retain its museum status.
Visiting Hagia Sophia
By general consensus, Hagia Sophia is the most important Byzantine structure and one of the world’s greatest monuments. Its grandiose structure was meant to impress and it surely does!
Before you enter the church you should take time to admire the impressive building from the outside. Walk around and enjoy the stunning architecture. You can see Hagia Sophia from many points in Istanbul, but perhaps the best close up view is from the beautiful garden next to it.
Once inside, you will notice that Hagia Sophia has a classical basilica plan. The ground floor has the shape of a rectangle with a central dome above it. The interior of the dome once had gold decorations and mosaic tiles, but today it has Koranic inscriptions.
The first thing that will strike you when entering the church are the huge marble pillars and the delicate mosaics. The columns used in the construction came from the long-abandoned and destroyed Temple of Artemis in Ephesus.
To appreciate the grandeur of this church you’ll have to go up to the gallery and look at it from above. To reach the upstairs gallery, you will have to walk on a stone paved ramp. On the upper floor you will also see some of the surviving mosaics that once decorated Hagia Sophia.
The walls above the galleries and the base of the dome are surrounded by windows, which in the daylight hide the supports and give the impression that the canopy floats in the air.
Interesting facts about Hagia Sophia
- Despite what you may think, the name Sophia has nothing to do with the female name. “Sophia” is in fact the Greek word for wisdom. Therefore the true meaning of Hagia Sophia is “The Church of the Holy Wisdom.”
- 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.
- 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 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 Bayazid II, and the last two by Selim II.
- Since first built in 325 AD, the church structure suffered 3 destructions: it burned down completely twice and was partially destroyed during an earthquake.
- The Crusaders’ attack on Hagia Sophia in 1204 had a big role in the Great Schism – the splitting of the Eastern (Orthodox) branch from the Western (Roman) one.
- Hagia Sophia started as Christian church, then morphed into a mosque and afterwards into a museum.
Since it became a mosque again, Hagia Sophia is open 24 hours a day. However, you should check praying times, as it can be closed for worship. The best time to visit it is from 9 o’clock in the morning till praying time at noon. On Fridays, is better to visit in the afternoon because mosques in Istanbul are closed for half a day due to Friday prayers.
It will take at least an hour to visit the church by yourself, but the guided tours take only 30 minutes. Since Hagia Sophia is a mosque now, there is a dressing code in place. This means that women need to cover their heads, shoulders, and knees. It’s a good idea to bring your own scarf to cover your head. Men need to cover their chest and legs.
A Final Word
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) was indisputably Istanbul’s main draw and Turkey’s most visited monument until 2020. Its neutral status symbolized the secular nature of modern Turkey. But unfortunately that has changed when Hagia Sophia become a mosque again.
So what do you think: was it a good idea to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque again?