Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya is probably the must-see historical site in Istanbul; a city that’s full of them.
In Greek, it means Holy Wisdom and the building served as a Greek Orthodox Church when it was ordered to be built by Emperor Justinian close to 1,500 years ago. It was the Byzantine’s 3rd attempt at a grand church after the 1st two were taken down by fires and riots. Completed in 537 AD, it stands as a landmark of the area’s Christian, Muslim, and imperial history. It was converted into a Mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and has been a Museum since 1935.
There’s a lot to process when you get in there. So, I’m going to give you a little help with some of the most important locales. Whether you don’t want to pay for the audio tour or guide, just want to impress someone with your knowledge of near eastern history, or you aren’t in Turkey and want to see what you’re missing out on. Here is a view of some of the most impressive sites in the world.
The first thing you’ll notice when you finally get inside (Get a museum card, so you don’t have to wait in line!) is the Imperial Door. This massive bronze door opened only when the Emperor arrived and sat beneath one of the most impressive mosaics, which I’ll mention later and opens up to a majestic view of the lower gallery where most of the attractions stand. This is because churches at this time focused on the east side of their corridors. This trend continued when it became a mosque because Mecca is south-east of Istanbul and therefore the mihrab and other vital facets are located in this area. Above the door sits one of the more famous mosaics, which I’ll talk about later. Also, when you enter, there are two massive indents in the floors that were caused by two statues that stood for close to 1000 years.
Where the Imam would lead Friday services, it sits on top of about 40 steps where you can allegedly see the imprints from the original chair. It has an epic stature next to the altar and overlooking the coronation block. It also stands near the mihrab (formerly the altar) in the apse area. When you visit, you’ll notice the mihrab is slightly off center. This is because it pointed straight to Mecca (south-east of Istanbul) and was altered from its centered position during the Mosque conversion. Above the altar is a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and another one of the archangels Michael and Gabriel (though these images are hard to discern nowadays). The minbar is just an aspect of maybe the most fascinating part of the museum, the apse.
The apse that is mentioned and the picture above incurs quite the crowd in front of it. It was the central area for spectacles at Hagia Sophia. The throne directly faced another area that is of particular importance: The Omphalion.
Ostensibly, it’s just a spot on a marble floor with different color tiles and doesn’t appear to hold any importance, besides the fact that it’s roped off. In actuality, it’s the spot of the Byzantine Emperor’s coronation. This exact spot was the place for emperors such as Basil I & II, Irene, Zoe, and Alexius, to see their ascension to power.
I find this to be such an important site because even though it has an unimposing appearance. It is the exact spot of the transference of authority for the most influential person of the most potent empire for about 1,000 years.
The Islamic calligraphic roundels that hang from the walls amongst the numerous Christian mosaics are another fascinating aspect of the Museum and provide a contrast between Christian and Islamic history. These roundels are the largest calligraphy plates in the world and spell the names of Allah, Mohammad, and six of Mohammad’s brothers. They were apparently placed during Aya Sofya’s transition into a mosque and illustrate the separation from Christian art and architecture.
Christ as Pantocrator
What Hagia Sophia is maybe most known for are its mosaics. Just like looking at a Rembrandt painting can tell you about the Dutch Golden Age or Baroque Age, these mosaics fill you in on beliefs and ideas from the Byzantine heyday, as well as their decline. The first mosaic you’ll notice (and there’s lots of them) is the Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the Imperial Door.
Here you’ll see Christ seated with (who’s probably) Leo VI kneeling before him. Gabriel is on the right side of the frame and Mary on the left. My shitty photography makes it difficult to recognize the book in Jesus’s left hand, but the Latin inscription reads, “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world”. (John 20:19; 20:26; 8:12). This mosaic dates back to the late 9th or early 10th centuries.
The Deesis Mosaic is probably the most famous and is located in the upper gallery. It marked the beginning of the Renaissance of Byzantine art. It was completed in the 13th century and is notable because of its attention to detail in facial features, vibrant colors, and because it was ordered to be created to mark the end of Roman Catholicism in Constantinople. It shows the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist pleading with Christ Pantocrator for humanity’s salvation.
Empress Zoe Mosaic
Another illustrious design is the Empress Zoe Mosaic that dates back to the 11th century. You see Christ Pantocrator surrounded by Empress Zoe who holds a scroll to symbolize all her past donations to the Church, with an inscription above her head reading, “Zoe, the very pious, Augusta.” Next to her, is her 3rd husband Constantine IX holding a bag of money to show his donation to the Church. His inscription reads, “Constantine, pious emperor in Christ the God, king of the Romans, Monomachus.” Above Christ’s head are the letters IC and XC meaning, Iēsous Khristos in Latin. The faces in the mosaic have been scratched off previously and are believed to have been initially created for another Emperor and Empress or just one of Zoe’s previous husbands.
Chamber of Warriors Mosaic
The Chamber of Warriors Mosaic is the last one I’ll discuss. There are numerous others to see, like the Alexander or Mary Mosaics. The Warriors’ Mosaic is interesting because it flanks Mary, with baby Jesus on her lap, with Constantine I holding a model of his namesake, Constantinople, and Justinian presenting a copy of his most celebrated accomplishment, a model of the Hagia Sophia.
There are countless other beauties to behold in and around Ayasofya, including other mosaics that have as rich a history as the ones mentioned above, remnants of the 2nd Hagia Sophia, Tomb of the Sultans, the Library, the Weeping Column, the Marble Door, and many more. I can only suggest you visit this place yourself to understand truly how it feels.
Why You Need to See It
If you’ve been on the fence about visiting this place, then you may want to take advantage of the opportunity while it lasts. There has been a big push to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque, especially after comments from Pope Francis acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. Protests started on the weekend of May 23rd to turn the structure into a mosque again. Causing massive outcries from secularist Turks as well as Greeks who see Hagia Sophia as a significant feature of their religious history.
What this conversion could mean is a few things for visitors. Much like the rest of the famous mosques in Turkey, it will remain open to public visitation (probably) and close only during prayer times. The most significant changes would be the carpeting of the floor, covering items such as the coronation square. Also, the legendary mosaics on the walls will be covered with plaster as the depiction of religious figures aren’t allowed. So, some of the more impressive and must-see sights will be forever hidden from view.
While the idea of changing it back to a mosque has been debated for a few years, it’s only been talk up to this point so that I wouldn’t freak out quite yet. Though, with the current political climate and the rising of Islamist policies from the ruling AKP, I wouldn’t put it past them to push forward with this plan.