Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia at night
The Hagia Sophia at night

Visit because

This ancient monument is historically one of the most important centres for religion and culture in the region. The Hagia Sophia is also one of the finest surviving examples in the world of Byzantium architecture.

It was also the first imperial mosque of Istanbul.

About the Hagia Sophia

A short walk from Topkapi Palace and opposite the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, the Hagia Sophia is a monumental construction of stone with a significant dome. Now a museum, we arrived relatively early in the morning to avoid spending too much time standing in a queue which can get quite long. The ancient architecture of the building makes it a very different experience to visiting the other religious buildings found in Istanbul.

Internal photo of the Hagia Sophia.
The Hagia Sophia is a monumental construction dating from 537AD.

The site of the Hagia Sophia has had a religious building on it, a church, since 360AD; the current structure dates from 537AD however – still a church at this point. Damaged on several occasions by earthquakes and fires, the building has always been repaired, a testament to the importance historically afforded to it within the city of Istanbul. Additional changes were made to the building, including the addition of minarets following the Ottoman invasion of Constantinople in 1453, when it was changed from a church to a mosque. As such the Hagia Sophia as it looks today has been subjected to several structural and architectural additions since it was originally built.

External photo of the Hagia Sophia.
Minarets were added following the Ottoman invasion of Constantinople in 1453, when the building was changed from a church to a mosque.

While the minarets added to the Hagia Sophia were designed by the Ottoman classical architect Mimar Sinan, the complex as a whole is Byzantine architecture. Built as a spectacular monument to God, the building was the largest cathedral in the world for 1000 years. Internally it is lit primarily from above, where daylight enters through numerous relatively small arched windows. What was built as the apse of the church is glazed however, giving both a direction and a focus to the space. The later addition of a mihrab within the apse is not quite aligned with the direction of the space. Having been built as a church the building is not aligned to face Mecca whereas the mihrab is, as is required in mosque architecture, orientated in that direction. These contradictions between the two religious continue through much of the building, particularly in the artwork – a visual manifestation of the fascinating history of the complex.

The dome of the Hagia Sohpia
The vast dome of the Hagia Sophia spans over 30m and rests on a series of arched windows.

The highlight of the building is the vast dome which spans over 30m and rests on a series of arched windows. Supporting this huge, and heavy, dome has dictated much of the structural requirement,s and hence architecture, of the walls on which it rests. Originally built on four pendentives, tapered triangular segments of a sphere that align the round geometry of a dome with the rectangular or square geometry of the plan below, buttresses were added during both Byzantium and Ottoman rule in an attempt to constrain the lateral forces imposed on the structure by the dome. The buttresses are visible as you enter the complex, and the pendentives are visible within the building itself. It is quite an extraordinary feat of engineering.

A seraphim mosaics
A seraphim mosaics found at top of the pendentives, thought to be over 700 years old.

While the spatial qualities of the building in terms of scale and proportion are, well, pretty stunning, this is enhanced by the beautiful and intricate mosaics that cover most of the interior. I will stray away from architecture for just a few sentences to make a few notes about art, of which the Hagia Sophia is a treasure trove. Of particular note are the four seraphim mosaics found towards the top of the pendentives, thought to be over 700 years old, and Greek lustration urns taken from the Pergamon. These were carved from a single block of marble between 323BC and 31BC and are quite extraordinary in their beauty.

Photo of a lustration urn in the Hagia Sophia.
Thought to be over 700 years old, and Greek lustration urns were taken from the Pergamon.

Visiting details: Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is now a museum so there is a charge to visit.

As this is no longer a specific religious building, there is no dress code.

Website: www.ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr