Aya Sofya, Hagia Sophia or, in English, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, is a mighty structure defining the heart and soul of Istanbul, melding the characteristics of a city that crosses time, continent and culture. If you only have time to visit one sight in Istanbul this is it.
Church, Mosque and Museum
Originally built by Byzantine Emperor Constantius I as a Greek Orthodox Church, Hagia Sophia had a hard life and survived an earthquake, fire and revolt over a period of 916 years before being converted to Aya Sofia Mosque in 1453. Four minarets were added and the vast, domed building remained a mosque until 1935. At this time Ataturk proclaimed that it should become a museum where symbols of both religions would be housed side by side to pacify both faiths.
Hagia Sofia Dome
Head upstairs, or rather up wooden ramps, for a spectacular view of the main atrium and nave from the balcony above the main entrance. Bathed in diffused golden light the people gathered below gauge the scale of the building. The central dome, reaches 55.6 m above the museum floor and is supported by four pendentives adorned with winged cherubs.
Hagia Sofia Mosaics
Ancient frescos and gilded mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Christ, restored after the mosque became a museum, are displayed under the magnificent dome alongside 19th century leather medallions gilded with the names of God (Allah) and Mohammed in Arabic lettering. More mosaics, uncovered after the Hagia Sophia became a museum, line the upstairs gallery and give an idea of the grandeur of the original decoration inside the Church.
This is a majestic, beautiful building that inspires a sense of awe and one where I felt compelled to stay awhile, even after having seen all there was to see, just to soak up a sense of time and place and the essence of Istanbul.
Today any form of worship (mosque or church) is strictly prohibited – as such there is no strict dress code.
Where: Aya Sofya Meydanı 1 Sultanahmet
When: 9am-6pm Tue-Sun mid-Apr–Sep, to 4pm Oct–mid-Apr.
Cost: Adults 30 TL – under 12s free