Visit historic Hagia Sophia sanctuary in Istanbul

A masterpiece of Byzantine architecture


Ayasofya Meydanı, Sultanahmet Fatih, Istanbul, Turquey

GPS: 41.009685300154, 28.980830207875

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The building of Hagia Sophia sanctuary with its dome of Hagia Sophia (Hagia Sophia in Greek or Ayasofya in Turkish), means “Divine Wisdom” or “Holy Wisdom”. It was built during the reign of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I on the site of the Byzantine Acropolis in the 6th century. Its construction in 532 as a Greek Orthodox church was prompted by the successive destruction of two earlier basilicas by fire and earthquakes. These were built in turn by Emperor Constantine I in 330 (who gave his name to the city) and Emperor Theodosius II in 415.

Ambitiously, Justinian I wanted to found a huge dome of Hagia Sophia sanctuary in Constantinople dedicated to Christ and the wisdom of God, the Temple of Divine Wisdom. To achieve his goals, he drew inspiration from the plans of the Pantheon in Rome, selecting the most refined materials and mobilising the best workers in his empire. Hagia Sophia quickly became the main church in Constantinople and a flourishing stop on the Silk Road. The seat of the Orthodox Patriarch, one of the oldest dioceses in the Christian world, Hagia Sophia hosted the coronation ceremonies of the Byzantine emperors. At the beginning of the 13th century, during the Fourth Crusade, the basilica fell into the hands of the Latin crusaders who plundered it of its riches. It then became the home of the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople. Two centuries later, the dome of Hagia Sophia sanctuary was converted into a mosque and became a mosque. After a military siege in 1453, the city led by Constantine XI Palaeologus was conquered by the 7th Sultan, Mehmed II the Conqueror, who made it the great capital of the Ottoman Empire. This battle coincided with the fall of the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire). From 1934 onwards, this emblematic monument of Istanbul was once again transformed into a museum, this time as part of the secularisation of the country, under the aegis of Kemal Atatürk (the first president of the Turkish republic) demonstrating how it has been part of Eastern and Western culture.

Severely damaged on several occasions by earthquakes (part of the original dome collapsed in 558), Hagia Sophia is undergoing extensive restoration. It is topped with large minarets by the Ottoman architect Sinan in the 16th century. Additions, motifs and decorative elements embellished the interior of the mosque before its conversion into a museum. This masterpiece of Byzantine architecture remained the largest church ever built in the world for 1,000 years until the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome (consecrated in 1626). Following an administrative court decision, the dome of Hagia Sophia sanctuary is once again dedicated to Muslim worship since 2020 turning the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque with marble and mosaic decoration of the interior of Hagia Sophia. Remarkable aspects of Saint Sophia or Hagia Sophia include or have included the floor of Hagia Sophia, the eastern end of Hagia Sophia, the byzantine art, the nave, arch, vault, altar, second dome, the throne in the apse, frescoes and mosaics and all that is part of the dome making this a Unesco World Heritage site with much to still see.

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  • A unique building used in turn by Orthodox, Catholic and Islamic currents on the border of Europe and Asia; the spiritual atmosphere that emanates from the monument; an architecture that inspired the Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman eras for several centuries
  • The main dome (6th century) surrounded by four large minarets (15th century); the large dome providing a light effect, dotted with forty or so windows allowing the sunlight to pass through; the profusion of gold and the numerous decorative elements covering the interior walls (mosaics, paintings, objets d’art…)
  • The Byzantine mosaics located on the upper floor in the upper gallery (including those representing a portrait of the archangels Gabriel and Michael on the arch of the bema); the figures of seraphim (winged celestial creatures); the monogram of the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora embellished with acanthus leaves (finely sculpted capital or chapiter)
  • The marble columns, capitals and doors; the vaults, galleries and domes; the massive appearance of the building’s exterior flanked by a system of buttresses designed to resist earthquakes
  • The abundance of polychrome stones, brought from various provinces of the Byzantine Empire: Red porphyry from Egypt, ivory from Ephesus (an ancient Greek city in western Turkey), white marble from Marmara (a Turkish island), green marble from the island of Euboea in Thessaly (Greece), pink marble from Synnada (an ancient city in Phrygia in Turkey), black marble from Moulis (France), yellow marble from Africa, stones of various colours from the Bosphorus, from Syria, from the site of Baalbek (Lebanon)…
  • The mausoleums of sultans, the baptistery of the ancient basilica and the excavated remains of the Hagia Sophia of Theodosius (nearby)
  • The mixture of Christian and Muslim trends and symbols in one place
  • The grandeur of the esplanade; the museum’s library (housed in the mosque’s former Koranic school)
  • Ideal location on Istanbul’s historic peninsula; the variety of the city’s historical heritage and the excitement of the Turkish capital’s streets
  • It was during the reign of Constantine I (or Constantine the Great) in the 4th century AD that the ancient Greek city of Byzantium was renamed Constantinople and became the capital of the Byzantine Empire (or Eastern Roman Empire). This emperor planned to build the new Rome that would bear his name. According to Frédéric Hitzel (doctor of history and specialist in Ottoman art), this city was composed of a series of important monuments: agora, palaces, temples, baths, hippodrome, etc. Constantine I, a pagan, converted to Christianity, the new state religion that spread throughout much of the empire during his reign. He was responsible not only for the construction of the first Hagia Sophia Basilica in Constantinople but also for the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome, St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
  • On the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395, the Roman Empire was divided into two distinct entities: the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire (better known as the Byzantine Empire). The former, consisting of Gaul, Spain, North Africa and Italy, disappeared rapidly, less than a century later, after the great barbarian and Germanic invasions. The Byzantine Empire, comprising Greece, Anatolia (now Turkey) and Egypt, flourished for more than 1,000 years until the advent of the Fourth Crusade in the early 13th century and the Ottoman invasion in the mid 15th century.
  • The new city of Constantinople reached its golden age with the rise to power of Justinian I in the 6th century. However, the emperor had to face a great revolt in 532 following a horse show that destroyed half the city. To reinforce his legitimacy and to mark his reign, Justinian I began the transformation of Hagia Sophia. He commissioned two renowned architects (the physicist Isidore of Miletus and the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles) to transform the existing modest basilica into a flamboyant monument of unequalled perfection. It took only 5 to 6 years to build this architectural marvel of a surface area and scale unequalled in the world, thanks to the combined efforts of 10,000 workers. The new basilica, topped by a huge dome (55 metres high and 30 metres in diameter), was inaugurated and consecrated in the year 537. A ninth-century account recounts that Justinian I declared on this occasion “O Solomon, I have surpassed you” (in reference to the first temple in Jerusalem). This architectural feat helped facilitate Constantinople becoming the most populous city in the Mediterranean basin. Before the collapse of the main dome in the middle of the 6th century, it was covered in gold.
  • According to a legend, it was an angel from heaven who drew and provided the plans for the monument of Hagia Sophia to Emperor Justinian I.
  • By losing the battle during the siege of Constantinople to the Ottoman army led by Mehmed II the Conqueror in 1453, Constantine XI Palaeologus went down in history as the last Byzantine emperor and the last Eastern Roman emperor.
  • Some of the jewels of the Hagia Sophia are stored not in Istanbul, but inside the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, Italy (as a result of the Fourth Crusade and the capture of Constantinople by the Eastern Latin Empire or Latin Empire of Constantinople in the early 13th century).
  • As a political symbol of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, the monument of Hagia Sophia changed its function again in 2020, 1500 years after its construction. The current Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had never hidden his desire to make it the house of Allah again. His wish was granted following the publication of a decree by the Turkish Council of State which proclaimed the immediate conversion of the museum into a mosque on 10 July 2020. Two weeks later, Hagia Sophia hosted the first Friday prayer in the presence of the Turkish president himself. This decision was widely decried by the international community, led by UNESCO, which regretted the change in status of Hagia Sophia, a World Heritage Site, without any consultation. This date was not chosen by chance by Erdoğan as it corresponded to the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne (setting the new borders of present-day Turkey). It also came at a time of intense tension with Greece over the sharing of waters in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.
  • Hagia Sophia is always open to the public outside the prayer periods for free visits (entry is free and allowed regardless of your religious affiliation).
  • Avoid visiting on Fridays, a major day of prayer for Muslims.
  • Inside Hagia Sophia, you will be asked to remove your shoes if you wish to walk on the prayer mat. Women should wear a headscarf before entering the mosque (they are distributed at the entrance of the building). To avoid any embarrassment or misunderstanding, please do not take photographs of anyone praying.
  • A cruise on the Bosphorus will give you a different perspective on Hagia Sophia and the Turkish capital.

Where to eat

  • Ziya Baba Restaurant
    (in the pure tradition)
  • Erhan Restaurant
    (simple and efficient)
  • Deraliye Ottoman Palace Cuisine
    (refined Ottoman cuisine)

Where to go

  • Topkapı Palace
    (former residence of the sultans)
  • Basilica Cistern
    (unsuspected underground site)
  • Haseki Hürrem Sultan Hamami
    (rejuvenating Turkish bath)

Where to stay

  • Berce Hotel
    (small and well run hotel)
  • Rumours Inn
    (with trendy decoration)
  • Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul...
    (successful accommodation)