Istanbul's Hagia Sophia ("Church of Holy Wisdom") is considered to be an enduring, majestic symbol of the Byzantine Empire. At an astonishing 1,475 years old, the Hagia Sophia changed the face of architecture and merged religions. Originally an Orthodox Christian basilica, the building was constructed over five years by 10,000 workers on the orders of Emperor Justinian I in 532-7 AD. The Hagia Sophia was then the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople for almost all of its first millennium. In 1453, Istanbul was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, and the Hagia Sophia was ordered to be converted into a mosque. It remained so until 1935, when the Turkish government declared the Hagia Sophia a museum. For over a thousand years it was the largest church in the world and is now one of the twenty biggest churches on the planet, even fifteen centuries after it was built.
When you enter the Hagia Sophia, make sure to linger for a moment where prompted just inside the first set of huge wooden doors. By taking a few slow steps while looking up, you'll get the best possible sense of the roof's amazing interior unfolding before your eyes. First you will see a small dome with half a dozen windows, and then you will realize it is one of three domes enclosed by a larger dome. A few more steps and the much larger overall dome will come into breathtaking view, ornately decorated and encircled by windows filled with the dazzlingly bright Turkish sun. The sight is all the more amazing when you consider that this architectural feat was achieved almost a millennium and a half ago.
Once inside, evidence of Hagia Sophia's mixed history, as both a Christian and Muslim place of worship, is visible all around. Richly decorated with mosaics, over its centuries as a Christian basilica, many of the Hagia Sophia's historic paintings were plastered over when it became a mosque. However, many of these historic paintings inside the church are again visible thanks to a modern restoration project that is still ongoing. You can also see most of the trappings of an Islamic mosque—the mihrab (wall inset pointing to Mecca), minbar (raised pulpit), and of course the four gigantic minarets or pillars outside—that were added in the centuries that followed the Hagia Sophia's conversion into a site of Muslim prayer. The centre of the largest dome is a point of controversy within the restoration project. It currently features Islamic calligraphy but was originally the site of a mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator ("Almighty"). The original painting is centuries older, but the Muslim art, now historic in itself, would have to be destroyed to uncover the first mosaic (if it is even still there).
Ultimately, a visit to the Hagia Sophia is about more than just historic architecture; it is about the rare sight of two of the world's biggest belief systems coming together under one roof.
When to Go to Hagia Sofia
Dozens of airlines fly to Istanbul, and mostly to the city's main international airport: Ataturk, which is located 15 miles from the city. A light rail service, as well as shuttle buses and public buses, are available for travel to the city centre. Some flights also serve Sabiha Airport, but bear in mind that it is 35 miles southeast of the Turkish capital.
Most visitors to Turkey are required to pay a small fee for a tourist visa, but this can be acquired easily upon arrival to the country. The cost of the visa varies depending on what your nationality; and a passport and return ticket are also required.
The best time of the year to visit the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is in the off-season because you can avoid the summer crowds and the mosquitos!
Odds n' Ends
The locals call the Hagia Sophia by its Turkish name: “Ayasofya” (rough pronunciation guide: aye-ya sue-fah). So if you're getting a taxi to the area, this is what to say to the driver, or what to expect him to say in reply to confirm your destination.
Admission to the Hagia Sophia museum is TL10 (Turkish Lira), or about US$9. It's located on Sultanahmet Square in the Old Town, and is accessible by tram. The square is also adjacent to some of the other historic sights in Istanbul, such as the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.
Want a Guide?
- Imperial Istanbul: Hagia Sophia & The Grand Bazaar
- This half-day tour features visits to the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. From US$43 per person, including hotel transfer, tickets and local guide.
- Istanbul in One Day Sightseeing Tour
- This one-day tour includes the Turkish capital's four biggest historic sights, including the Hagia Sophia. With lunch, tickets and hotel transfer for from US$68 per person.
- Istanbul Tours - Hagia Sophia Tour
- This half-day tour offers visitors the chance to see the city's four biggest historical sights beginning at a time of the group's choosing between 8am and 1pm. Prices from US$44 per person depending on the size of the group.
Places to Eat
- The Pudding Shop
- This restaurant, located within a stone's throw of Sultanahmet Tram Stop, opened in 1957 and became famous as both a hippie hangout and tourist magnet. One to visit for the charm alone.
- This character-filled restaurant, located in a turn-of-the-century school building in the Beyoglu district, is actually a restaurant, cafe/bar, lounge and garden all rolled into one. Open late until 2am daily.
- Java Studio
- Opened by a Canadian expat in 2007, this cafe boasts an international bakery and Western-style breakfast as well as an extensive coffee menu. Located a short walk from the Hagia Sophia next to the Four Seasons Hotel.
Recommended Places to Stay
- Hotel Uyan
- This period hotel is located within minutes of the main historic sites of the Old Town. Single rooms are $75 per night in off season with breakfast included.
- Antique Hostel
- This hostel is located centrally to Sultanahmet Square and claims to have won many awards for its offering. Dorm beds start at US$16 per night in off season, with other room types available.
- Anadolu Hotel
- This budget hotel is near the main sights and features a garden bar and roof terrace. Single rooms US$52 per night in off season.
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