The great old Aya Sofia has a history as complex as Istanbul itself. Starting life as the Hagia Sophia Church (Church of Holy Wisdom), it was turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest and is now a museum. The dome is one of the iconic symbols of the city, and even amidst Sultanahmet’s (Istanbul old town district) many monuments, this ancient building remains one of the top tourist attractions.
The first church on this site was built by Constantine the Great in AD 326, but it was later burnt down. The next church to rise on this site was subsequently destroyed during the Nika Rebellion.
During the reign of Emperor Justinian, the church was rebuilt on a grander scale, with construction work between 532 and 537. Built with the stated intention of surpassing in splendor all buildings of antiquity, its construction has many classical elements, with Roman and Greek sites plundered for their stones. Large numbers of columns were brought to Constantinople from temples in Asia Minor, Greece and Italy and the finest marbles and precious metals were used. It is said that the total cost of the building was 360 hundred kilograms of gold and 10,000 workers were employed in the construction.
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Christ Enthroned Mosaic – Aya Sofya
Measuring 75 meters long, 70 meters wide and 58 meters high (from the floor to the top of the dome), the Aya Sofya is a gigantic space. In the exonarthex (outer vestibule) and narthex (inner vestibule) are fine early Christian mosaics. During the building’s tenure as a working mosque, these were covered over by whitewashed houses, but reconstruction work since 1931, when the Aya Sofya became a museum, has once again largely exposed these magnificent works of art. Of particular interest is the 9th-century figure of Christ as Pantocrator about the Imperial Doorway (the main access road) and the mosaic of Christ Enthroned flanked by Empress Zoe and Emperor Constantine IX in the upper gallery.
Back view of Aya Sofya
Due to its dual religious use over the centuries, the interior is a fascinating mix of both Byzantine and Ottoman splendour. It is illuminated by numerous windows and dominated by the magnificent central dome with a diameter of 32 meters. Huge circular wooden plaques on the main pillars are inscribed in gold script with the names of the first four caliphs. In the apse is the mihrab (the niche that indicates the direction of Mecca).
Aya Sofya Highlights
Virgin Mary Mosaic
Above the main exit gate, this beautiful 11th-century mosaic depicts the Virgin Mary flanked by Byzantine emperors Constantine the Great on her right and Justinian on her left. Constantine offers the virgin Constantinople, while Justinian offers Hagia Sophia to her.
Five sultans are laid in the Aya Sofya complex, just outside the building’s main entrance, next to the original baptistery. All tombs have lavish interiors with Iznik tilework.
One of the most famous parts of the Aya Sofya is this column in the north aisle of the Imperial Door. The column is said to have been blessed by St. Gregory the Miracle Worker, and one of the popular things to do here is to put a finger in the hole, as it is believed to cure the disease.
Address: Aya Sofya Meydanı, Sultanahmet
Official site: www.ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr