Hagia Sophia – 20 Must Things to Know Before Visiting


Hagia Sophia with its 3-3.5 million visitors yearly and magnificent architecture, history, and art is one of the most important tourist attractions in Istanbul.

Its breathtaking appearance with its vast size and uniqueness in the most beautiful and historical location of Istanbul makes it Number 1 in tourists’ list.

It served as a church to Christians for about 1000 years and 500 years as a mosque to the Muslims. So it means, Hagia Sophia has been a house of worship for Christians and Muslim believers for about 1500 years and has honored both religions with its glory.

A brief history of Hagia Sophia

Emperor Constantin of the Eastern Rome Empire founded his imperial city in 324 by his name ‘Constantinople’. Before Constantinople, the island was called ‘Byzanton’ but Byzantine people never called themselves Byzantines. They saw themselves as Romans.

It was the medieval historians who saw the necessity of calling the Eastern Roman Empire as the Byzantine Empire and nailed the word. Because people were mixing the Western Roman and Eastern Roman while there were huge differences between them.

So when the emperor started to construct his new capital city, Hagia Sophia was one of the first buildings to be built but from wooden material. History of Hagia Sophia as you see today dates back to 537 AD but before it, in the same place, there were two churches with wooden roofs smaller in size and destroyed for various reasons.

The second Hagia Sophia is burned down by rivals in 532 during the period of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The revolt is called the Nika revolt as people were chanting this word meaning ‘conquer’. Hippodrome entertainments called ‘Circus’ was the main place for public and imperial events and ceremonies. Here the Blues and the Greens were contesting and entertaining the emperor and the city dwellers.

In 532, the Blues and the Greens organize a revolt against Justinian’s financial policy with the city population and burn down Hagia Sophia.

Who built Hagia Sophia?

After the suppression of the revolt, Emperor Justinian decides to build a new church that will be the center of Christianity in the World. He invites two engineers Anthemius of Tralles and İsidore of Miletos to design his dream church. 100 assistant architects with 100 workers per each worked under two main architects during the construction of the church. Written records also confirm that around 10.000 people worked in the construction.

When the Emperor Justinian sees it in the inauguration, he screams saying ‘Solomon, I have passed you’. At that time, there were big churches with huge domes in Western Rome and the European Christian world but it was the first in the East and biggest of all churches in the World. It remained as such until the constructions of Saint Paul Church in London, Saint Peters Church in Rome and Duomo Church in Milano.

From Constantinople to Istanbul

When the Ottoman troops under the leadership of Sultan Fatih Mehmet II conquers Constantinople in 1453, they decide to make it their capital city. As Fatih had such intention before, he tried to take the city with a minimum level of destruction and prevents his soldiers from destroying the city.

From Hagia Sophia to Ayasofya

After the conquer of Constantinople, Sultan decides to convert Hagia Sophia into an imperial mosque by adding the first minaret and other Islamic attributes to the church. The Ottomans were trying to preserve the originality of the cities and historical monuments rather than destroy them.

In the same way, Hagia Sophia keeps its name with a few changes as ‘Ayasofya’ and its gold and blue mosaics are not destroyed but with the order of Sultan Mehmet II, they are covered or plastered over. That is the main reason why mosaics have been preserved for centuries and today we can still see them on the walls.  

Ayasofya with its new name, minarets and new Islamic identity enters a new stage as the main mosque of the imperial city of the Ottomans. Indeed, when the Ottomans inherit Ayasofya, it was in a devastating situation. Sultan sets a certain amount of money from treasure for its immediate renovation as a mosque and establishes the Ayasofya Foundation (Vakıf) to cover its expenses.

Hagia Sophia does not lose anything from its glory and fame during the Ottomans, vice versa it becomes the most respectful mosque of the Empire. Sultans prayed in this mosque every Friday (Juma) and funeral prayers of sultans, princes, and princesses were performed here. They also built their mausoleums (türbe) in the garden of Ayasofya which you can visit, too.

Sultan Selim II, Sultan Murad III, Sultan Mehmet III, Sultan Mustafa I and Sultan İbrahim’s mausoleums are in the garden of Ayasofya in turbe part. Ottomans also added several more buildings to Ayasofya’s surroundings and converted it into a huge complex from a single mosque. Alongside the mausoleums, gradually elementary school, fountain, ablution place, astrology room (to determine prayer times), madrasah, kitchen, library, and other Islamic elements were built and added.

From the Ottomans to the new Republic of Turkey

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the new Republic of Turkey was announced in 1923. Ayasofya operates as a museum since 1935. It was the most visited museum with 3.3 million tourist visits in 2015 according to the Ministry of Tourism of Turkey Republic.

In a nutshell, as you see this marvelous building has witnessed three civilizations coming and going by standing there. The Byzantines, the Ottomans and now Republic of Turkey. Imagine how many millions of people regardless of being Christians or Muslims have prayed inside this building during 1500 years. What remains us to do is just preserve and respect it.

1. Hagia Sophia is an amazing sample of harmony and tolerance between religions

     Inside the museum, you will see the most unique view of the world and the symbol of peace and tolerance of the two biggest religions to each other. Here they are side by side and inside the same building. While on the one hand, you see Christian mosaics and frescoes on the walls, on the other hand, you see Koran verse in the dome and calligraphy panels with Islamic names on the corners plus Islamic attributes.

The verse ‘Allah is the Light of Heavens and Earth’ (Nur 34/35) has been added in the time of Sultan Abdulmecid (1847-1849) with eight big panels with the names of Allah, Muhammad, Ali, Hasan, Huseyin, Abubekir, Omer and Osman. These panels have been hung in the corners of the ceilings with beautiful calligraphy and with their sizes of 7.5 meters, today they are the biggest calligraphy samples of the Islamic world.

2. Hagia Sophia is the heartland of two civilizations

The location of Hagia Sophia is just in the supercenter of Istanbul where you can see plenty of historical buildings at one time. I tend to call this place ‘the heart of Istanbul’ more precisely ‘the heart of the Byzantines and the Ottomans’. It is like one of the biggest open-air museums for me.

Even if you have just a day to spend in Istanbul, only visiting Hagia Sophia site you can also visit Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Yerebatan Cistern, Carpet Museum, Mosaics Museum, Topkapı Palace, Magnaura Palace, Hippodrome, German fountain, Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, Firuz Ağa Camii, Şerefiye Cistern, Nakış Carpet Shop with cistern below, Small Ayasofya Mosque (Küçük Ayasofya), Literature Foundation with its wonderful cafe (Cevri Kalfa Mektebi), Arasta Covered Bazaar, Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı), Divan Yolu (Mesa) and so on.

These are the main attractions of Istanbul. Of course, it is better to spend at least 2 days only in this site of the city to fully cover all of them and enjoy the history without hurrying.

3. Hagia Sophia was the biggest church for 1000 years

Hagia Sophia enjoyed being the biggest Greek Orthodox Cathedral for about 1000 years. Byzantine emperors wore their thrones in the Omphalion part of Hagia Sophia. It did not have a rival in size until Seville Cathedral was built in 1506. Hagia Sophia was also Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the main pilgrimage site for Christians.

4. Hagia Sophia has an older neighbor – Hagia Eirene

In 532 revolt, Hagia Sophia was not the only church to be burnt. Hagia Eirene (Saint Irene, Aya Irini) called Great Church neighbor of Holy Wisdom was also burnt down. When Constantin built Constantinople, Saint Irene was the first and great church of the city.

After it is burnt, Justinianus I also rebuilt it. While the Ottomans inherit the city, Fatih Sultan Mehmet II orders to build imperial Topkapi Palace near Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene stay in the outer garden of Topkapı Palace.

It was used as a house of ammunition during the Ottoman Empire and became the first museum of Turkey afterward.  Today it is considered to be the first and oldest church of Istanbul. When visiting Hagia Sophia, do not forget to visit its older neighbor Hagia Eirene, as well.

5. Hagia Sophia is UNESCO’s ‘Archeological Park’

‘Archeological Park’ – is the name given to the site by UNESCO in 1985 when it included it to its World Heritage List. Inside Archeological Park, Hippodrome, Ayasofya, Topkapı Palace, Aya Irini, and Small Ayasofya Mosque are included in the same list of Archeological Park.

6. The size of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia was the biggest church of the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire with its huge dome 31.612 m in diameter and 55 m height from the base. The biggest dome is supported by six smaller domes around it. The total area of the museum is 7570 meters. The length is more than 100 meters. It had 7 doors and the biggest one was used only by the Emperor.

7. Traces of Artemis Temple of Ephesus are inside Hagia Sophia

Ephesus columns

Inside the Hagia Sophia, there are overall 107 marble columns brought from antic cities such as Ephesus of the Byzantine and used in the construction of the church. We can say that these columns keep the heavyweight of the dome and do not allow it to collapse. The long-abandoned temple of Artemis columns of Ephesus were also used in Hagia Sophia.

If you are eager to follow the traces of Artemis Temple, I would recommend visiting the Archeology Museum of Selcuk (Aydın) and Ephesus open-air museum near Izmir where you will find other remains of this temple.

8. There is a column sweating (weeping?)

When you enter from the door this column will appear on your northwest side with its bronze coverage in the middle. There is a small hole in this column and it consistently sweats. According to the story, one-day Justinianus I, had a terrible headache and he reclines his head against this column and suddenly his headache stops.

From this day, people believe them to be tears of Maryam with its healing features. So many people rub their hands to water on the column and put it on their ached parts with the hope of healing. Do not forget to find this column inside the museum. Anyway, you will see a lot of people taking photographs of it, so you will understand.

9. Constantinople and Hagia Sophia are gifts to Virgin Mary

The best mosaic to see is in the main exit doorway. This door is also called ‘Emperor door’ and the Byzantine Emperor would enter from this door. The mosaic dates back to the 11th century with Virgin Mary in the middle holding Jesus in her hand, on her right, Emperor Constantin is giving the city of Constantinople to her and on her left Emperor Justinianus I presenting her Hagia Sophia.

10. Hagia Sophia has been one of the wonders of the World

No doubt, Hagia Sophia is one of the wonders of the world. With technological possibilities of the 6th century, the period of 5 years of construction of Hagia Sophia is a recording number while the Church of Notre Dame of Paris was completed in a century and Sagrada Familia of Barcelona cannot be finished since 1832 until today (137 years).

11. Hagia Sophia was the richest church and mosque during the Byzantines and the Ottomans

The architectural and artistic richness of Hagia Sophia was not accumulated at once. It took centuries to add the pieces one by one. The richest icons of the church were destroyed during 726-787 and 815-843 when the iconoclasm wave hit the imperial city. This wave saw icons as out of religion and smashed many of icons of the church.

By the way, icon making was one of the main arts in the Byzantine and Iconia city (today Konya) was the center of these specialists and church icons were brought from there. Coming to the Islamic adding, the four minarets were built at different times. The first one was added in the time of Fatih Sultan Mehmet II, the second in the time of his son Sultan Bayezid II and the last two were added by Architect Sinan in the 16th century.

12. Hagia Sophia has been restored for four times

When Sultan Abdulmecid decided to restore Ayasofya in 1847-1849, he invited the Italian Fossati brothers from Switzerland for the restoration. Fossati brothers started renovation with 800 workers. They were the first people who uncovered and restored the mosaics and frescoes on the walls of Hagia Sophia.

Remember, they were covered up by Fatih Sultan Mehmet II right after the conquer of Istanbul. So the mosaics and frescoes you see inside the museum today were mostly revealed by Fossati brothers. They also renovated more than 50 buildings of Istanbul during the Tanzimat era.

13. Crusaders plundered Hagia Sophia in 1204

During 1204-1267, Constantinople was attacked and plundered by Crusaders whose intention was taking Jerusalem. Being unsuccessful because of Ayyubid Sultan Salahadin, Constantinople took its share from pillaging. Hagia Sophia was attacked and plundered by crusaders and the Byzantine Empire could not stand to return its power and wealth once more after the Crusaders.

Hagia Sophia remained in a desperate situation until Fatih Sultan Mehmet II conquered the city and ordered an immediate renovation.

14. The architecture of Hagia Sophia has been an inspiration to later churches and mosques

Hagia Sophia opened a new page in the history of architecture. With its 40 windows around the dome, it reflected mystical light inside the church and onto the worshippers. That was the uniqueness of the Byzantine architecture and inspired many other churches and mosques throughout history.

Ottoman architects were especially inspired by the structure of small domes and used the same style in many mosques. Some sultans contested to build a bigger mosque than Ayasofya, but none of them could surpass its dome.

Selimiye Mosque (1575) with its 31.3 m dome with the order Sultan Selim I in Edirne and Sultan Ahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque (1617) right in front of Ayasofya are samples of it. Şehzade Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, and Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque have also been inspired by the design of Ayasofya.

15. Having the biggest dome represented the heavens and eternity

In ancient times, contesting for the biggest domes in their churches and temples had a reason. Domes represented the heavens and eternity in the Roman culture. Dome of the Pantheon in Rome had a similar one with Hagia Sophia which is the temple of Roman gods and goddess collection.

16. Hagia Sophia means ‘Holy Wisdom’

Photo has been taken in Ephesus antic city ‘Celsus library’. Sophia is one the four goddesses of the library in the ancient Greek belief system.

Sophia means ‘Wisdom’ and Hagia means ‘Holy’ so, Hagia Sophia is ‘Holy Wisdom’ in Greek.

17. There are a nice Café and Museum shop in the garden

There are a nice cafe and museum shop outside in the garden of the museum where the remnants of the first and second Hagia Sophia are still there in the garden. You can enjoy drinking your tea or coffee with such an amazing historic view.

But be careful sitting under the walnut tree if you visit when they are rape. With the kind help of birds, one by one they drop on the tables, heads of tourists and inside their drinks. The best remedy – open your umbrella or just take away your coffee and have a close look at the previous church’s stones.

18. Upstairs of Hagia Sophia is open to public

Do not forget to climb the second floor and look at the museum from the top. There is a corridor in a small corner of the museum from where you can go up to the second floor. It is a little bit in the hidden part of the museum, therefore many people visit inside and leave without seeing it. Don’t miss the chance of having a panoramic view.

19. Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are different places

Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are sometimes confused. Blue Mosque is the name given to Sultan Ahmet Mosque as blue tiles were abundantly used in the construction.

20. You do not have to cover yourself to enter Hagia Sophia

Tourists do not have to cover themselves and their heads since it does not function as a mosque, but a museum. However, wearing properly will just show your sympathy and respect of 1500 years old holy building.

However, if you visit Sultan Ahmet which is in 5 minutes walking distance you have to cover your head and body. There is a place outside the mosque where guards distribute such clothes for free. When you leave, you give it back.

Before Your Visit

What are the working hours of the Hagia Sophia Museum?

You can visit the museum from 9.00 to 18.00 during the summer months and from 9.00 to 16.00 during winter months.

What is the ticket Price of the Hagia Sophia Museum?

Museum ticket price is 72 TL ($12) for adults and it is free for children up to 12 years old.

Do not forget to get your Museum Card

I strongly recommend getting a Museum Card from the cashier so that you can enter several museums with the same card without payment. Another advantage of the card is that you do not have to wait in the long queues. In a minute, you show your card and you are inside the museum. If you are going to stay long, you can buy a yearly card which means you do not pay in more than 300 museums throughout Turkey. There are several kinds of Museum Cards such as Museum Pass İstanbul for 5 days, Museum Pass Turkey and Museum card yearly. The prices change for each.

Check the prices and suitability for your travel on the website: https://muze.gov.tr/MuseumPass

Photo allowance

Yes, fortunately, there is not any restriction to take a photo. You can take photos inside without flash.

Check the weather before going

Do not forget to check the weather forecast before visiting the place. If you do not have a Museum card, it means you might wait in the queue about 30-90 minutes depending on the tourist peak season. Mostly, you wait outside and if it rains you get thoroughly wet unless you have an umbrella.

How can I get to Hagia Sophia?

The best way to get there is by tram the blue line T1 Kabatash-Bagcilar. If you are near Eminonu, Sirkeci, Aksaray, Beyazit, Kapali Carshi, or Gulhane you might walk and enjoy the touristic attractions, hundreds of shops and cafes or take a tram for a few stops. Another possibility is of course to take a taxi, but do not forget to bargain the price and be conscious that the driver does not take you there from a long way.

To sum up, Hagia Sophia is the symbol of three civilizations and as long as it stands there, Byzantium, Ottoman Empire, and the Turkey Republic will exist together in one place but at different times.

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