On our first morning in Istanbul, fresh from an 11-hour flight and a ride into town from Istanbul International Airport, we headed to a tour of Hagia Sofia. Once a church, then a mosque, then a museum, then back to a mosque again, this colossal structure dominates the skyline of the old town section of Istanbul. It is one of the world’s oldest and most celebrated structures.
Admission to Hagia Sofia is free, but plan to wait in line. We got there early and were part of the first set of visitors when the doors opened at 9 a.m. As you enter the structure, you see signs of its former grandeur, with gilded ceilings and a beautiful mosaic. You must remove your shoes to enter, and women must wear head scarves.
The interior of the structure is breathtaking in its immensity. Although built more than 1500 years ago, it remains one of the largest domes on Earth, and the interior is so enormous you feel like you are outside, looking up at the heavens. Photos simply don’t capture its vastness.
The interior decorations are a mix of Christian and Moslem. You can see a depiction of a seraphim—basically, a face with wings—on one of the dome supports above, and the photos below show some round quotations from the Koran, in Arabic, that are on display. The area under the dome is covered by a rug with lines that allows the Moslem faithful to kneel in alignment toward Mecca.
It would have been interesting to see Hagia Sofia at the height of the Byzantine Empire, but that is impossible. It was looted by the Crusaders when the sacked Constantinople on one of the Crusades, and the sultans and imams have made many modifications since Constantinople was conquered by the Turks in 1453. As the photo below shows, however, you can still seem glimpses of its former glory. It must have been an even more extraordinary place 1,000 years ago.
One of the best preserved mosaics in Hagia Sofia appears above the doorway to the exit from the structure. Dating from approximately 1100 A.D., it shows Mary and Jesus receiving gifts: the figure on the right represents Constantine, whose gift is the colossal walls that once protected Constantinople, and the figure on the left represents Justinian, whose gift is the Hagia Sofia in its original form. Justinian’s gift is one that keeps on giving, as our visit to this awesome place demonstrated.