Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s Byzantine Jewel

Hagia Sophia is old. Very old. The building that currently stands on the first of Istanbul's famous seven hills dates back almost 1,500 years and has had a remarkable and colorful history. It's also a beautiful place to visit.
Aya Sofya interior with tourists
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The first questions every stranger asks as his steamer rounds Seraglio Point from the Mormora or descends the Bosphorus from the Black Sea are: “Where is Sancta Sophia?” “Which is Sancta Sophia?” To catch the earliest possible glimpse of its outline the eye of every traveler is strained… . In after years, in the quiet of the stranger’s home, it is the colossal form of Sancta Sophia which stands out most distinct on the canvas of Constantinople memories. (National Geographic, May 1915)

The beautiful interior tiling of the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque), which shares the peak of the first of Istanbul’s famous seven hills, draws the western tourists, but to my mind, Hagia Sophia is even more impressive. It’s a place with a colorful history and special significance as Turkey’s first mosque (and the model for many others) and a genuine world landmark.

And it is old. Very old. It’s about 1,200 years older than the Blue Mosque, 1,100 years older than St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, 700 years older than Westminster Abbey, about 600 years older than Notre Dame de Paris, and at least 400 years older than the famous pyramid of El Castillo of Chichen Itza. But Hagia Sophia is not some ancient, abandoned ruin–it’s a true architectural marvel. During its 1,500 years, it was a Christian cathedral for almost 1,000 years, a Muslim mosque for almost 500, and a public museum for nearly 80.

From the moment you pass through the massive Imperial Door, which was, as its name suggests, once reserved for the exclusive use of Byzantine emperors, you realize that you’re somewhere quite special. A massive domed ceiling seems to float a hundred feet above the ground held aloft by barely-there supports. Large metal frames, each with dozens of lights, are suspended from the dome to within about 10 feet of the floor. Eight massive, wooden circular shield of black and gold hang from the corners, each inscribed with the name of an early Muslim religious leader.

It is known in Greek as Hagia Sophia, in Turkish as Aya Sofia, and sometimes as Haghia Sophia or Sancta Sophia or Aya Sofya. All translate roughly to “divine wisdom.”

Construction as The Hagia Sophia Basilica

In terms of important contributions to the world’s great buildings, Rome’s Emperor Constantine the Great didn’t too badly at all. Having led the Roman Empire to Christianity, he commissioned two of the world’s great churches. Within one busy year, 326 AD, he ordered the construction of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Neither version of the building that stands now dates quite that far back, but Hagia Sophia comes closest–by about 1,000 years.

The site upon which Hagia Sophia now stands was once the site of a pagan temple. In 326, with Constantine himself presiding over the ceremony, the foundation stone was laid and the name given for what eventually became one of Christianity’s greatest monuments.

The first, more modest version of Hagia Sophia was destroyed by fire in 532. Not wanting for ambition, the new Byzantine emperor, Justinian, decided that rather than simply recreate the original, he would commission something far more expansive. Legend has it that the cathedral’s impressive centerpiece, its dome, was inspired by a visit to Emperor Justinian in a dream by an angel. The dome would be its defining marvel, would be a dome higher and wider than any to come before it, and held aloft with a minimum of support so as to create the illusion of floating. The rest of the building would play a supporting role–literally and figuratively–for the dome, rather than the other way around as was the convention.

To make his vision a reality, Justinian put out a call throughout the empire for contributions. From the city’s population, estimated to have been about half a million at the time–about ten times what it would be 900 years later–he created a workforce of 5,000, split into two competing teams, each operating on a side of the building.1

Cathedrals typically take a long time to build. Notre Dame de Paris took about 80 years, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome about 120 years, and St. Paul’s in London a comparatively brisk 35 years. Impressively, Hagia Sophia was completed within 6 years.

The result was an architectural marvel. Justinian’s historian Procopius described the unique effect of the dome: “It abounds in sunlight and in the reflection of the sun’s ray from the marble. Indeed, one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it.”2

Conversion to Aya Sofia Mosque

For almost a thousand years, with Constantinople the capital of the Byzantine empire, Hagia Sophia was one of the great centers of Christianity. When the city was sacked in 1204 by Latin invaders in the Fourth Crusade, an unknown amount of Hagia Sophia’s relics and decorations were looted or destroyed. The Latin occupation was short-lived; two years later, Byzantine rule was restored. For another two and a half centuries, Hagia Sophia remained the architectural jewel of the Christian Byzantine empire. That all changed when the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, which had repelled so many would-be invaders for a thousand years, finally fell permanently.

The 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II led his army through the historic gates of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, after laying siege to the city for nearly two months and after two years of planning. While his army pillaged their way through the city for the customary three days of post-conquest looting, Mehmet proceeded directly to Hagia Sophia. As historian John Freely describes the visit:

Before Mehmet entered the building he dismounted and fell to his knees, pouring a handful of earth over his turban in a gesture of humility, since Haghia Sophia was as revered in Islam as it was in Christianity.3

Mehmet then ordered the building to be converted to a mosque and given the Turkish name Aya Sofya Camii Kabir. That required the construction of wooden minaret from which the müezzin would give the call to prayer. Inside, a minbar, or pulpit, was added for the imam to lead prayers, and a mihrab added to denote the direction of mecca. Three days after Constantinople fell, Mehmet II attended the first noon prayer in Hagia Sophia on Friday, 1 June 1453.3

In time, other modifications were made. The temporary wooden minaret was eventually replaced with four made of stone (Sultan Ahmed Mosque has five). In accordance with Muslim custom that prohibits the representation of humans, two large mosaic seraphim depicting angels adorning the side of the dome were plastered over; it’s only in the past few years that they have been uncovered and restored along with several other intricate mosaics.4

Conversion to a Public Museum

As one small part of his effort to create a secular Turkish state by disentangling religion from the nation’s government, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (usually just known as Ataturk), led the creation of special legislation to convert Hagia Sophia into a public museum.5 The mosque was closed to the public in 1931 and reopened as a museum four years later.

Since then it has brought in thousands of tourists a day, generating an impressive revenue stream from the entrance fees. Campaigners for Aya Sofia’s restoration have long argued that far too little of the profits from those fees is being funneled back into restoration efforts to clean the soot-caked walls, uncover plastered over mosaics, and buttress the foundations to protect against further damage from earth tremors.

Somewhat miraculously, it has mostly withstood the many earthquakes that have destroyed much of the rest of the city at various times. And while it hasn’t emerged entirely unscathed, the damage has, for the most part, been superficial.

And Back to a Mosque

In July 2020, a Turkish court revoked Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum. Minutes later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree that opened the way for Hagia Sophia to again become a mosque.

Photos of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia exterior
The view from across Sultanahmet Park, which lies between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Lights
One of the many impressive chandeliers. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Apse Mosaic of the Theotokos (Virgin Mother and Child)
Apse Mosaic of the Theotokos (Virgin Mother and Child). Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Main Hall Scaffolding
The scaffolding is moving around as the renovation project progresses. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Istanbul at Night
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Calligraphy in Hagia Sophia
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia mosque interior with lights
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Medallions
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Lights and Stained Glass Window
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Park Outside Blue Mosque Istanbul
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Istanbul
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Istanbul
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Istanbul
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Deësis Mosaic
Deësis Mosaic. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Deësis Mosaic
A closer view of the Deësis Mosaic. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Painted ceiling in Hagia Sophia
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Deësis Mosaic
Deësis Mosaic. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Medallions
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Cobblestone Ramp
A cobblestone ramp that radiates from the main entrance. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Chandelier Lights Looking Up
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Virgin and Child Mosaic
A decorated room near what is now the exit. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Istanbul
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Gold Dome
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia Scaffolding
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Christian mosaic in Hagia Sophia
A gilded mosaic. Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia at night
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia interior arches
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Hagia Sophia interior chandeliers and tourists
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Haghia Sophia interior columns and dome
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
Interior of Hagia Sophia mosque
Photo © David Coleman / HaveCameraWillTravel.com
## What to Know Before You Go

  • Hagia Sophia is has been converted again, from a museum to an active mosque. So the visitation rules have changed and are in line with those of visiting the Blue Mosque. This is the updated guidance provided on the mosque’s official website:

All visitors, Muslims and non-Muslims are allowed to enter Hagia Sophia Mosque. Visitors should remove their shoes before stepping onto the mosque’s carpets. Avoid visiting Hagia Sophia Mosque at prayer times (five times a day), especially noon praying on Fridays. Women should wear a head covering when entering to the Hagia Sophia. Headscarves are available at the Hagia Sophia Mosque entrance without a fee. Photography is allowed, however do not take pictures of people who are in the mosque to pray. Stay silent during your visit, don’t run and stand in front of anyone praying. There is no entrance fee to visit Hagia Sophia Mosque, but donations are welcome.

Where to Next?

Travel Advice for Turkey

You can find the latest U.S. Department of State travel advisories and information for Turkey (such as entry visa requirements and vaccination requirements) here.

The British and Australian governments offer their own country-specific travel information. You can find the British Government's travel advice for Turkey here and the Australian Government's here.

Health & Vaccinations

The CDC makes country-specific recommendations for vaccinations and health for travelers. You can find their latest information for Turkey here.

Guidebooks for Turkey

If you're looking for a guidebook to make the most of your visit, these are some of the most popular ones currently for Turkey. Some are available in both paper and e-book formats.

Fodor's Essential Turkey (Full-color Travel Guide)
  • Fodor's Travel Guides (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
Rick Steves Istanbul: With Ephesus & Cappadocia
  • Aran, Lale Surmen (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)

Travel Insurance For Your Trip to Turkey

I never travel without travel insurance, and I've run into several situations where I've had to make claims. I consider it essential.

But shopping for travel insurance can be a pain and confusing. Thankfully, there are some travel insurance comparison sites that show you a wide range of plans, make it easy to compare coverage, and can save you money at the same time. And the coverage can be much better tailored to your specific needs than the checkbox offering at travel booking sites or through your credit card.

These are some good places to shop for travel insurance for your next trip to Turkey :

Hopefully, you won't need it, but if something goes wrong, you'll sure be glad you have it!

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