Exploring Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia): A Visitor's Guide
The grand old Aya Sofya 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.
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.
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 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 Aya Sofya 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.
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).
Aya Sofya Highlights
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.
Five sultans are laid to rest in the Aya Sofya complex, just outside the main exit from the building, beside the original baptistry. All of the tombs have lavish interiors featuring İznik tile work.
One of the Aya Sofya'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 Meydanı, Sultanahmet