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Exploring Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya): A Visitor's Guide

Written by Jess Lee
Mar 27, 2019

Aya Sofya - Aerial view

Hagia Sophia - Aerial view

The grand old Hagia Sophia has had a history as complex as Istanbul itself. Starting its 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. Its dome is one of the iconic symbols of the city, and even amid all of Sultanahmet's (Istanbul's old city district) many monuments, this ancient building remains one of the top attractions for tourists.

Buying an e-ticket online through the official Turkey Museums website allows you to skip the long queue at the entrance.

Touring of Hagia Sophia

There are official tour guides available at the Hagia Sophia's entrance courtyard, but if you're planning to hire guides at a few of Istanbul's top sights to delve deeper into the history of this city's grand monuments and buildings, it's usually better value to book a tour combining some of the major sights.

The small-group Istanbul day tour explores the old district of Sultanahmet and is great if you want to cram as much as possible into one full day in the city. It includes tours (and entrance fees) to six of the district's most famous places and buildings-the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar-offering a great introduction to Istanbul's vast heritage. Lunch and pickup and drop-off from your hotel are also included.

The Imperial Istanbul half-day private tour takes things at a slightly slower pace, concentrating on touring the Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, and Grand Bazaar. It's a good option if you want to discover the history and stories of these three renowned sights. All entrance fees and pickup and drop-off from your hotel are also included.

History of Hagia Sophia

Aya Sofya Interior

Hagia Sophia interior

The first church on this site was built by Constantine the Great in AD 326 but this was later burnt down. The next church that rose on this spot was then destroyed during the Nika Insurrection.

During the reign of Emperor Justinian, the church was rebuilt on a grander scale, with construction taking place between AD 532 and 537. Built with the avowed intention of surpassing in splendor all the buildings of antiquity, its construction incorporated many classical elements, with Roman and Greek sites pillaged for their stones. Large numbers of columns were brought to Constantinople from temples throughout Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, and the finest marbles and noblest metals were used. It is said that the total cost of the building was 360 hundredweight of gold and that 10,000 workmen were employed in its construction.

Layout of Hagia Sophia

Christ Enthroned Mosaic - Aya Sofya

Christ Enthroned Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

Measuring 75 meters long, 70 meters wide, and 58 meters high (from the floor to the top of the dome), the Hagia Sophia is a mammoth 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 up under whitewash, but reconstruction work since 1931, when the Hagia Sophia became a museum, has mostly exposed these beautiful artworks once more. Of particular interest is the 9th-century figure of Christ as Pantocrator over the Imperial Doorway (the main entranceway) and the mosaic of Christ Enthroned flanked by Empress Zoe and Emperor Constantine IX in the upper gallery.

Back view of Aya Sofya

Back view of Hagia Sophia

Because of its dual religious usage over the centuries, the interior is a fascinating mix of both Byzantine and Ottoman splendor. It is lit by countless windows and dominated by the magnificent central dome with its 32-meter diameter. Huge circular wooden plaques on the main piers are inscribed in gold script with the names of the first four Caliphs. In the apse is the mihrab (the niche indicating the direction of Mecca).

Hagia Sophia Highlights

Virgin Mary Mosaic

The Virgin Mary Mosaic

Above the main exit doorway, this stunning 11th-century mosaic depicts the Virgin Mary flanked by Byzantine Emperors Constantine the Great to her right and Justinian to her left. Constantine is offering the virgin Constantinople, while Justinian is offering the Hagia Sophia to her.

Ottoman Tombs

Five sultans are laid to rest in the Hagia Sophia complex, just outside the main exit from the building, beside the original baptistry. All of the tombs have lavish interiors featuring Iznik tile work.

Weeping Column

One of the Hagia Sophia's most famous components is this column in the northern side 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 place a finger in the hole, as it is thought to cure sickness.

Address: Aya Sofya Meydani, Sultanahmet

Official Site: https://ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en

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More Byzantine Sights: The Hagia Sophia is, justifiably, Turkey's most famous Byzantine relic, but the country is littered with castle and church remnants from this period. The most important area for Byzantine ruins outside of Istanbul is Cappadocia. Come here for the valleys filled with cave-cut churches, which hold vivid frescoes.

Earlier Ruins: If your mind is boggling from the vast history on display from the Byzantine period, then wait until you travel down the coast. Here, you'll find some of Turkey's most well-known historic sights, including the famous ruins of Troy, with settlement stretching back 5,000 years, and the iconic ruins of Ephesus, Turkey's best-preserved Roman town.

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