Hagia Sophia Cathedral – Turkey’s most impressive landmark

Hagia Sophia Cathedral: history of one of the main sights of Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia is a magnificent stone basilica that has been an integral part of Constantinople (now Istanbul) for 1500 years. The majestic structure has a fascinating history and is a favorite tourist attraction. The unique architectural object has survived the rise and fall of empires, crusades, world wars, political upheavals and even a dramatic change of religion.

1. The forerunners of the cathedral of Ayia Sophia

Like many other temples, the Cathedral of St. Sophia (Hagia Sophia) was built on the site where religious objects had stood for centuries before. Researchers believe that on the site of the cathedral, which exists today, a pagan temple was erected during the Roman Empire and was restored several times because of fires.

Hagia Sophia Cathedral in 1848 (drawing by Gaspar Fossati, from the album “Hagia Sophia in Constantinople”)

During the reign of Emperor Constantine I in 324-337 the first Christian church was established in place of the pagan cult object, which was continually rebuilt and expanded by his son, Emperor Constantius II (according to the manuscripts of Socrates Scholasticus).

The interior of the Ayia Sophia cathedral through the eyes of Gaspar Fossati (drawing from “The Ayia Sophia in Constantinople”).

The historical background: In Byzantine times Constantinople had become an important political, economic and Christian center. Since that time, the bishop of Constantinople has been second in power and prestige only to the Pope of Rome, who to this day is considered the Supreme Pontiff.

At all times Hagia Sophia Cathedral has attracted attention with its unusual architectural forms and scale (Istanbul, Turkey)

This redistribution has left its mark on the history of Hagia Sophia Cathedral, for it was necessary to erect a more spacious and pompous building. An unforeseen impetus to the construction of the “Great Church” was the fire that completely destroyed the first Cathedral of St. Sophia. Soon after the tragic events in 532 by order of Emperor Justinian I the construction of the new shrine began, which “was to be an ornament of the capital and serve as an expression of the greatness of the empire”.

2. stages of construction

The model and plan-drawing of St. Sophia’s Cathedral

To create the majestic temple, the emperor ordered to buy the adjoining territories and invited the best architects of the time, Isidore of Miletus and Anthymius of Tralla, who were more mathematicians and engineers than architects. This played an important role in the forms and structural features of the building, which revolutionized Christian temple construction, for until then no one had designed domed, almost square churches.

The magnificent stone basilica has been an integral part of the ancient city for 1500 years (Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)

Fulfilling the emperor’s wishes, only the finest materials and elements of ancient temples were used for the construction (columns for the portico), which were brought from the Temple of the Sun, Ephesus and other places of worship. In addition, marble, gold, silver, ivory, copper, glass, gems and even diamonds were used in building the cathedral. The abundance of unprecedented luxury led to legends and eerie prophecies, which stultified the emperor. The erection and furnishing of the temple emptied the treasury of the Byzantine Empire of three annual revenues.

Marble columns were delivered from ancient temples of the Byzantine Empire (Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)

The dome of the majestic temple is still admired and amazed specialists (Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)

Interesting fact: Despite the fact that the designers were well-known mathematicians, their catastrophic miscalculations at the time of construction were obvious. The walls of the building could not support the weight of the dome and began to separate. To avoid the execution, the architects developed a new project, including the creation of side halls with half-domes, reinforced on the outside with stiffening ribs, which stopped the destruction. Although during the earthquakes that occurred shortly after construction, the dome did not hold up and collapsed. It was rebuilt by the Armenian architect Trdat, the creator of Ani Cathedral. He made it much higher using special ribbed masonry. This particular dome, of impressive dimensions (diameter 31 m, height 55.6 m) has stood for almost 900 years.

3. a Christian shrine during Byzantine times

Christian mosaics created by Byzantine craftsmen (Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)

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Christian mosaics of Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey)

Hagia Sophia has remained one of the most majestic religious sites in Byzantium for almost 900 years. Successive emperors added new features to the temple, adding to and changing its interior and exterior. Most of all, the mosaics depicting Byzantine emperors, saints, the Virgin Mary and Christ were transformed. The biggest impetus for change, and for the worse, was the split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.

Because of the schism, Catholic services were held in the church for 60 years (Hagia Sophia Cathedral, Istanbul).

After the schism, the East was swept up in crusades organized by the Roman Catholic Church, which in 1204 led to the total looting and desecration of Constantinople, including the Cathedral of St. Sophia. During this period there was a change of power, the Latin Empire was established and a Catholic patriarch was appointed. Since that time, St. Sophia was turned into a Catholic cathedral, with all the ensuing consequences. Especially valuable objects had already been taken by the crusaders to the West. Although Byzantium was able to regain its lands, the temple never regained its former glory; the empire was already fading and could not spend huge sums to rebuild it. Although the Orthodox Church did return to the walls of St. Sophia Cathedral.

4 The Ottoman rule and the fate of Hagia Sophia Cathedral

Minarets were completed during Ottoman rule (Hagia Sophia Cathedral, Istanbul)

In May 1453 the last Christian service in its history was held in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Soon the city and the last jewel of the old Byzantine empire were invaded by the army of Sultan Mehmed II. During the invasion, the already old building suffered further destruction and looting. However, its beauty so impressed the sultan that he decided to turn the church into a mosque. If from the religious point of view it meant only a change in the content and canons of divine service, then in architectural terms the change of religion required several new additions.

In the southeast corner of the cathedral a mihrab was created, and in the minaret towers a mausoleum of sultans was organized (Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)

Hagia Sophia Cathedral is the only mosque where you can see iconic calligraphic medallions. (Istanbul, Turkey)

The Christian altar was replaced by a mihrab facing Mecca, and a minbar (pulpit for preaching) was also added. A minaret was built in a short time, from which the call to prayer was heard. Throughout several centuries the Ottoman rulers continued to transform the building, maintaining its condition by constant repairs (its age affected) and the introduction of new facilities. Over time, the remaining minarets were completed (15th and 16th centuries) and the Byzantine mosaics were plastered on the order of Suleiman the Magnificent (figurative images are forbidden in mosques), which has kept them in excellent condition to this day. Also added were a golden crescent on the dome, an ablution fountain, a kitchen for charitable dinners, several ancient marble urns from the Hellenistic era, and iconic calligraphic medallions glorifying Allah and the Prophet Muhammad.

5. The formation of a modern museum

The beauty of the southern gallery even after thousand years impresses and delights the eye (Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)

In 1923 the Ottoman Empire ceased to exist, becoming the Republic of Turkey. This entailed not only renaming the capital from Constantinople to Istanbul, but also changing religious sites to secular ones. During the leadership of President Kemal Ataturk (1934), the Hagia Sophia Cathedral was turned into a museum. Since then, the restoration and restoration of the ancient shrine began, which allowed to clean plaster mosaics from the Byzantine period of Emperor Justinian and later images, were also found elements of still pagan temples and many symbols, proving that the temple has changed more than one religion. The removal of the carpets made it possible to see the marble floors, under which the ancient foundations were preserved.

Since 1934 the St. Sophia Cathedral was given the status of a museum (Istanbul, Turkey)

It took more than a decade to restore the spiritual site of several empires and religions (Hagia Sophia, Istanbul)

Studies of the surrounding area also helped discover fragments of the colonnade belonging to the era of Emperor Theodosius (before the construction of the stone Hagia Sophia Cathedral). For many years, the Hagia Sophia has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, better known as the Historic Districts of Istanbul, which has benefited its preservation and restoration. Until 2020, the ancient cathedral hosted tourists who visited the world-famous shrine in an endless stream to trace the fascinating history preserved in various architectural styles and religious symbols.

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6. Returning to the place of worship

A Christian shrine has once again become a place of worship for Muslims (Hagia Sophia Cathedral, Turkey)

The return of the magnificent Hagia Sophia Cathedral to the status of a place of worship is yet another chapter in the difficult yet fascinating history of the sacred site. Being constantly in the midst of national, religious and geopolitical events is nothing new for this magnificent structure. In the summer of 2020, without prior consultation with UNESCO, the Hagia Sophia Cathedral was officially transformed from a museum into a mosque by order of the current president, Recep Erdoğan.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

What is the attraction of the Hagia Sophia for tourists? What is the best way to get here? What are its opening hours? How much is a ticket? What architectural elements, mosaics, and decorations are must-sees? Read the answers in this article.

The big news!

Hagia Sophia Cathedral was transferred to the Department of Religious Affairs by Presidential Decree № 2729 on 10.07.2020 and is now a functioning mosque.

Opening hours have changed, admission is free, and there are changes to the interior. Read more about all the changes and an overview of the current situation (June 2021) below in this article.

A brief description of the attraction

Hagia Sophia Cathedral

The Cathedral of St. Sophia (Hagia Sophia) was built in 537, commissioned by Emperor Justinian I. For almost 1,000 years it was the largest Christian temple in the world. It became a major masterpiece of Byzantine architecture and a prototype for the imperial mosques of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Blue Mosque or the Süleymaniye.

According to the final statistics of 2019, Hagia Sophia Cathedral was visited by 3,727,361 tourists and is now the most visited attraction in Istanbul and Turkey.

The cathedral has a central section of three naves. The first central nave is located under the main dome, which is 55.6 meters high and has a diameter of about 31 meters. The northern and southern naves are under two half-domes of lesser height. Around the naves there are two narthexes (adjoining rooms) – internal and external.

The sizes of the construction are approximately 120õ100 meters. The size of the inside (not counting the narthexes) is about 48×32 meters. Capacity in the Ottoman era as a mosque – 50,000 people. What was the capacity as a Christian temple? It’s even hard to say. Considering the fact that Muslims pray sitting down and Christians standing up, we can assume about 100,000 people.

Inside, tourists look at the main dome, which is especially interesting when the sun is bright, when the sun’s rays penetrate through 40 windows, forming the effect of “soaring dome”. Also of interest are the Christian mosaics of the 10th century, the coronation place of the Byzantine emperors, the “Column of Wishes.

Since after the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks, St. Sophia became a mosque, there are also Islamic elements – four minarets, mihrab and minbar, the wall of Kaaba, a separate pavilion for prayers of the Sultan and his entourage.

About all the interesting places in the cathedral we will tell you in the course of our article. Now we will begin with the road to Hagia Sophia.

Where is it and how to get there

T1 line streetcar

Hagia Sophia is located at Sultanahmet Square, on the European side of Istanbul.

The cheapest way to get there is on the Istanbul Metro. In Istanbul, the subway system includes not only the classic underground subway lines, but also high-speed streetcar lines, cable cars and even two cable cars. One has to go to the Sultanahmet station on the T1 streetcar line. See line schematics, fares and features in our detailed article “Istanbul Metro”.

After leaving the streetcar station, look along the streetcar tracks. Immediately you will see the Cathedral of St. Sophia, it has sand-colored walls, a large dome and four tall minarets, it is not to be confused with anything else. Walk along the streetcar tracks and you will get right to the entrance.

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If you can spare the money, take a cab. It is difficult to predict the cost of the trip, it depends on the distance. For fares in Istanbul and other cities, see our article “Taxis in Istanbul, Antalya and other cities. Tell the cab driver the phrase “Sultanahmet Aya Sofia”, he will understand your destination exactly.

Ticket price

Free. And this is a nice change for tourists. After all, previously the ticket cost 100 Turkish Liras. See our article “Money in Turkey” for the current exchange rate.

Hagia Sophia entrance ticket

As of this article’s update (June 2021), there are not many visitors, as there are few tourists in Istanbul because of the coronavirus. However, let’s remember that in 2019, there were huge lines at the box office and at the entrance during the summer season. They even sold “Fast Track” for 105 liras.

Probably in the future, the tourist flow will already be much bigger. And we predict huge lines at the entrance, as the opening hours of St. Sophia for tourists have shortened. Most likely the practice of “Fast Track” sales will resume.

You can buy a tour at any travel agency in Istanbul. The price of the tour is 20-25 dollars. Then the guide will tell about all interesting things inside.

Opening hours

The opening hours for tourists (non-Muslims) depend on namaz, the time of prayer for Muslims.

The mosque is closed shortly before each namaz and ready for service. After half an hour or an hour after prayers they open for tourists. The start time of Namaz depends on the position of the sun and varies every day. It is difficult to predict.

But there is one universal advice. There is a big break in the morning when there is no namaz. This is from about 9:00 to 11:30 in the morning. Come at that time and you won’t have to count anything.

A little bit of history.

The Cathedral of St. Sophia has experienced a lot, let’s try to tell it very briefly.

Emperor Justinian I

The first large church on this site appeared in 360, it was built by Emperor Constantius II. The church was wooden and stood until 404, when it was burned down. Emperor Theodosius II in 415 built a new church, but also wooden. During the riots of 532 it burned down.

In 532, Emperor Justinian I (on the picture next to it, click to enlarge) laid a huge new cathedral of stone. Ten thousand workers were assembled for the construction. On December 27, 537 the Cathedral of St. Sophia was inaugurated by Emperor Justinian himself and Patriarch Menas (later canonized). The interior decoration, mosaics and frescoes at that time were not yet finished, they were finished for 40 years.

When emperor Justinian opened the cathedral he declared: “Solomon! I have surpassed you!”. The emperor meant that the greatness of the new cathedral was greater than that of King Solomon’s First Temple.

First Trouble. Earthquakes in 553, 557, and 558 collapsed the main dome, which in turn buried the altar of the temple beneath it. The reconstruction lasted until 562. That is when the Cathedral of St. Sophia got the present appearance, before that the dome was more flattened.

The second trouble. In 858 there was firstly the fire, then the earthquake. One of the cupolas collapsed. The cathedral was quickly rebuilt by order of Emperor Basil I.

The third trouble. On 25 October 989 there was a big earthquake in Constantinople, which went down in history as the “Great Earthquake”. One of the dome arches collapsed. Reconstruction took six years. New frescoes and mosaics were also added.

Golden mosaic at the northwest entrance

In 1204, Constantinople was conquered by the Knights of the Fourth Crusade. They sacked the cathedral and turned it into a Catholic temple. Baldwin I was crowned here as the first emperor of the Latin Empire. But he was Emperor for only a year. The Latin Empire lasted until 1261, and the Greeks who returned to power made the cathedral Orthodox again.

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Another earthquake shook Constantinople in 1344. The dome, damaged by the earthquake, collapsed in 1346. The cathedral has stood closed till 1354 when all the same have made restoration.

On May 29 of 1453 Constantinople fell under siege by the Ottoman Turks. The Byzantine Empire ceased to exist. The faithful – women, children, the wounded, the sick – were hiding in the Cathedral of St. Sophia. We won’t tell you what was there the moment the Turks broke in, it was too frightening. The Turks had sacked the cathedral.

Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror ordered the building to be repaired and turned into a mosque. Christian mosaics were either plastered over or destroyed. The mihrab and the wall of the Kaaba (facing Mecca) and the minbar were arranged inside. The first minaret was not built until 1481. Put four minarets the mosque has received only in board of Selim II in 1573.

In 1847-1849 there was a large-scale reconstruction. The building has got exactly the look as we see it now. Minarets were aligned in height, the sultan’s box was rebuilt, discs with the names of Allah, Mohammed and the first Islamic caliphs were hung up. The mosque was inaugurated on July 13, 1849.

A very interesting historical fact. When the Turks broke into the cathedral in 1453 and carried out a massacre, worship was going on there. Naturally, the service was interrupted. In 1919, when Istanbul was occupied by Entente troops, the Greek military priest Eleftherios Noufrakis ended the service in the presence of four officers.

Main hall, central nave

After the founding of the Turkish Republic, in 1935, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared the Ayia Sofia a museum, it ceased to function as a mosque. This decision by Mustafa Kemal is not surprising, as he was building a secular state.

In 2018, President Recep Erdoğan recited the first verse of the Quran in Ayya Sofya. In 2019, he explicitly stated that he intended to make Ayya Sofya a functioning mosque. By Presidential Decision No. 2729 of July 10, 2020, Aya Sofia became a functioning mosque. The first Friday prayers were held on July 24, 2020.

What to see – the dome

A masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, the dome is 55.6 meters high and 32.7-33.5 meters in diameter. The dome has a slightly oval shape, which was formed during the reconstructions. Now such sizes already do not surprise anybody, but in 537 this dome became a top of engineering thought of that time.

At the base of the dome are 40 windows. On sunny days light streams through the windows and a stunning “floating dome” effect is created, when because of the abundance of light the partitions between the windows are not visible.

Pay attention to the ribs between the windows, it is these ribs that hold the structure together. This structure did not exist originally but was built in 562 by the architect Isidore the Younger.

Note the mosaics of six-winged cherubs in the four corners below the dome. These are the four structures supporting the dome – the pendants. The cherubs in this place only accentuate the light effect. The cherubs seem to be holding the “soaring dome”.

What to see – minarets

The first wooden minaret was built by Mehmet II the Conqueror. The current four high stone minarets of the Ayia Sofia were only received during the reconstruction of 1847-1849. The minarets are 60 meters high.

Since 1935, when Aya Sofya became a museum, there has been no call to prayer from its minarets. However, during the Ramadan Bayram holiday in 2016, the minarets worked for their intended purpose, as the Hünkar Pavilion was open for Muslim prayers.

What to see – The Emperor’s Gate and the Empress’ Lodge

The largest gate was reserved for the Emperor of Byzantium, his bodyguards and members of his entourage. Be sure to walk through it, feel like an emperor.

On the upper floor there was a special area for the Empress and her entourage. Be sure to go to the second floor, you can see the magnificent views from there. The upper gallery is quite large, made in the form of a horseshoe, covering the entire nave, except for the apse. It’s not the steps that lead up to the top, but a special slope.

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If you’re lucky, you’ll find two inscriptions on the walls in runic script, made by Vikings in the service of the Byzantine emperor.

What to see – Omphalion

This is the coronation site of the Byzantine emperors. There’s nothing special about this place, it’s just a circle on the floor. We recommend to see it “just for show”.

What to see – the mosaics

Many magnificent mosaics survived solely because of the laziness of the Ottoman Turks. The Turks did not destroy the mosaics, but simply covered them with whitewash and plaster.

Above the Emperor’s Gate there is a magnificent mosaic depicting Christ and the Emperor bowing to him. You could say that this mosaic clearly shows the emperor that he is not the most important one.

Upstairs you will see mosaics depicting the archangels Gabriel and Michael, mosaics of birds in white and black marble. Mosaics of cherubs on the dome are interesting, because the Turks covered their faces with gold plates. Only to see these plates without magnifying devices is problematic. On one of the mosaics, the gold plate is removed, and a face can be seen.

On the half-dome above the apse is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus. To see this mosaic, you definitely need magnifying devices.

And there are dozens of other interesting mosaics and frescoes throughout the Cathedral of St. Sophia. Go, look, enjoy the ancient beauty.

What to see – the “wishing column”

At the northwest end of the building is a special column covered in bronze. There is a hole in the covering through which you can stick your finger.

It is believed that after St. Gregory the Wonderworker visited the cathedral in 1200, moisture began to seep into the column. If you feel the moisture with your hand, you can be cured of many diseases. The column is called the “weeping pillar” or “sweating pillar.

Guides tell tourists that the column grants wishes. Hence its popularized name “Column of Wishes”.

What to see – minbar, mihrab, Kaaba wall, sultan’s box

These are already additions of the Ottoman Turks. The minbar is the pulpit from which the sermon is preached during Friday prayers and Islamic holidays. The wall of the Kaaba faces Mecca; it shows the praying people the direction. The mihrab is the niche in which the imam prays.

Nearby is the “Sultan’s box” where the Sultan himself and his entourage prayed. Naturally, for security purposes, this place is a separate structure, raised above the floor and fenced off.

Important tips

– The audio guide in Russian is available for free as an app for iOS and Android. But you will need mobile Internet to use it. How to get it for reasonable money, read our article “Internet in Turkey cheap”;

– It is strictly forbidden to bring food and drinks inside, only plain water is allowed. This measure is easy to understand, the administration does not want to provoke the appearance of insects and rodents;

– In some parts of the building it is forbidden to take pictures. But security is not watching, especially given the huge number of visitors. So consider that you can take pictures everywhere, but only without flash and tripod;

– Nearby are the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern. Of course you can get to all of these places in one day, but then you would have to watch them at a very fast pace. It is better to plan two days for them so you don’t have to rush anywhere;

– There are restaurants, cafes, currency exchange, and souvenir stores around Aya Sofia. This is not surprising, because Sultanahmet is the main tourist area of Istanbul. It is possible to change money here and the exchange rates are acceptable, although not the best in the city. Read more in our article “Money Exchange in Turkey”. About what to buy in souvenir stores, read the article “What to bring from Turkey. About what’s interesting to try for lunch, read our article “Turkey’s Best Dishes”.

Have a good experience with Hagia Sophia Cathedral, and read our interesting articles about Istanbul and Turkey ( list of articles below ).

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