At the heart of the Old City of Istanbul stands a genuine manifestation of the spirit of the marvellous place that has long bridged Europe and Asia, East and West. Hagia Sophia is a striking testimony to the tremendous histories of Islam and Orthodox Christianity.
The majestic church-turned-mosque-turned-museum-turned-mosque has stood the test of time and war for almost 1,500 years. It has survived centuries of conquest and served as the main religious building for two of history’s greatest empires: the Byzantines and the Ottomans.
Built as the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople in 537, Hagia Sophia — Latin for “Holy Wisdom” — was hailed as the epitome of Byzantine architecture and remained the largest church in all of Christendom for nearly 1,000 years.
With the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror proclaimed Hagia Sophia to be the new imperial mosque of the city which he renamed “Istanbul”. He established a charitable endowment to restore and preserve the monument, with a significant annual income of 14,000 gold pieces per year.
In marked contrast to the looting, desecration and damage that the building had suffered at the hands of western Christian crusaders during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the Sultan ordered that the Christian interior of Hagia Sophia be preserved, and that new decorations be added to reflect its new Islamic identity. A wooden minaret, a tower used for the summons to prayer, was added to the exterior of the building, as well as a pulpit and a mihrab indicating the direction of Makkah. The original wooden minaret did not survive and a new minaret made from red brick was erected in its place at the southeast corner. The brick minaret can be seen today along with three others that were added over the next few centuries.
As you step inside, you are immediately taken aback by Hagia Sophia’s grand suspended dome over fifty metres high and more than thirty metres in diameter, with light reflecting through the windows all around its base. Beneath you are met with eight reinforcing Corinthian columns brought from Baalbek in Lebanon after the original dome had collapsed during an earthquake.
The interior is also laden with great columns taken from the Temple of Artemis, the Greek Goddess of the Hunt and the Moon. A unique column, dubbed the “crying column” or the “wishing column”, sits at the northwest of the building with a hole in the middle covered by bronze plates. The column is said to have supernatural healing powers. According to legend, it dampens when touched and the moisture cures many illnesses.
Hagia Sophia’s walls are covered with lavish Christian mosaics, Islamic calligraphy and even runic inscriptions presumed to have been left by Viking members of the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine army. Every wall, inscription and tile in Hagia Sophia tells a fascinating story of the civilisations that it has witnessed and everything that it has endured.
Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for nearly 500 years, until the Republic of Turkey was declared in 1923 following the Ottoman Empire’s defeat in World War One and the abolition of the Caliphate. The first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935 as a symbol of “secularism”. In 1985, it was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting millions of visitors every year.
On 10 July 2020, a Turkish court repealed the 1934 order which turned the monument into a museum, deeming the decree to be “illegal” and restoring its status as a mosque. New carpets were rolled out as it opened to Muslim worship. It still remains open to tourists and the public of all faiths and none.
What was a jewel of the Byzantine Empire and revered as a symbol of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople is now an icon of Turkish heritage and culture.