Hagia Sophia and the Area Around It
The massive 1st century Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) Church is one of the most famous and most visited landmarks of the Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula. The cathedral, which attracts visitors with its glistening mosaics and enormous dome that astounds people of all ages. Hagia Sophia is located in Sultanahmet Square. It is close to Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome, and Basilica Cistern. The church stands out thanks to the Blue Mosque directly across the street.
The Hagia Sophia Church (closed on Mondays), built by the order of Emperor Justinian, is regarded one of the most important architectural structures in the world. Ten thousand laborers and one hundred masters labored on the church’s construction between 532 and 537. The two most significant architects of the time, Isidore, an architect from Miletus, and Anthemius, a mathematician and physicist from Tralles, created the Hagia Sophia Church.
The structure served as the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate until Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s conquest of Istanbul in 1453, at which time it was acknowledged as the largest church in the world. The conversion of the church into a mosque was one of the first things Fatih accomplished after capturing the city. By Atatürk’s directive, the structure was transformed into a museum in 1935, and it remained thus until 2020. Since July 2020, the museum has been closed one hour before and an additional 30 minutes after prayer. It is crucial to confirm before you visit the Hagia Sophia Museum because Muslims pray five times every day depending on the position of the sun.
The church was destroyed during the insurrection in 404, therefore Justinian’s church was not the first. In 415 II. Theodosius constructed a brand-new church, which was destroyed in 532 during the Nika Revolt. Right after that, Justinian made the decision to have a grander church erected. The construction began six weeks after the former church was destroyed by fire and was finished on December 26 of the following year, 537. II. At the church’s main entrance, you may observe the few remnants of the Theodosian church.
Before we start, you can also check out our post about the 35 Best Things to Do in Istanbul that also includes Hagia Sophia!
You must first stop in Sultanahmet Square and mentally picture the structure without the sections that were later added in order to completely comprehend what Hagia Sophia looked like when it was first constructed; The imperial tombs are arranged in front of the four minarets, only one of which was constructed during the Conqueror’s reign. The other three were added progressively after the conquest. Then take down the enormous buttresses that were constructed when the structure appeared to be collapsing in 1317. After doing all of this, you will understand that the original church’s interior, not its grand façade, is what makes this church so unique and privileged.
Let’s continue by mentioning that the exquisite baroque fountain in the courtyard was constructed in the same year as the one-room elementary school you will notice on your left as you enter the garden. The structure that was formerly the baptistery of Hagia Sophia but later served as the mausoleums of Sultan Mustafa I (1592–1639) and Sultan Delibrahim may be found immediately to the right of the entrance (Crazy Ibrahim, ruling period 1640-48). Mimar Sinan constructed the mausoleum next to it for Sultan II. Selim (reigning from 1566-74) so that his wife Nurbanu Sultan and the deaths of the Sultan’s five sons by their father would allow Murad the III to ascend to the throne without opposition.
The Sultan Murad is interred in this mausoleum beside his beloved Safiye and 23 sons. 19 of his brothers were killed so that III. Mehmet would not face opposition. III. Mehmet and his wife Handan, who ruled from 1595 to 1603, are buried in the final tomb. None of III. Mehmet’s sons were put to death after his death; instead, those who did not succeed to the throne were imprisoned in the palace’s “cage.”
The Fossati Brothers erected the muvakkithane in the 19th century, which is situated close to the tombs and is a more opulent domed building than they are.
The Hagia Sophia Church’s entryway features a double narthex; the inner narthex is enclosed by marble walls and embellished with shimmering geometric mosaics, while the exterior narthex is incredibly plain. The early mosaics, which still exist from the first church Justinian built and derive their shine from the gold used in them, are sometimes overlooked by tourists who rush to see the more representational mosaics. Before the outside narthex, there used to be a courtyard with five doors. The Emperor would enter through the middle door, known as the Orea Porta, during the early years of building (Beautiful Gate).
From the inner narthex to the nave, nine enormous doors from the Justinian era are present (main hall). The longest and most significant is the Imperial Gate, which, as its name implies, was exclusively utilized by emperors. It shows the emperor, who is assumed to be VI. Leo (also known as Leo the Wise or Leo the Philosopher) (in power from 886 to 912). Despite the Orthodox church’s resistance to his fourth marriage, Emperor Leo was prohibited from entering the church despite having three wives before. The mosaic’s representation of sin forgiveness. It is taken to be a request for pardon from Jesus.
When you visit Hagia Sophia today, you enter via the door that was previously reserved for emperors and cross the marble threshold that has been worn by previous visitors’ feet. As soon as you walk in, the vast, dark nave beneath a beautiful dome envelops you with a sense of eternity. This void is said to have been created when Orthodox artifacts were taken out of the church during its transformation into a mosque.
The dome is supported by four enormous columns made of green marble that were transported from Thessaly. The dome also contains windows that let light to enter. The original dome, which had been repeatedly updated throughout the ages as earthquake vulnerability was discovered, was on the verge of collapsing in 558 when Isidorus, the nephew of Isidorus of Miletus, recalculated everything and constructed the current dome, which rises 56 meters above the ground.
When the church was converted into a mosque, the Pantokrator (Almighty) Jesus mosaics, which are used to decorate the dome at the Fethiye Mosque, were covered with fine plasters. The Hagia Sophia dome, which fell and was restored in 989 and 1346 during the Byzantine period, has endured to the present day, partly because of the changes made by Young Isidorus, and has never collapsed since the architect Sinan added retaining walls.
A stunning mosaic of the Virgin Mary sitting on a throne and cradling the infant Jesus in her arms adorns the half dome. According to a Greek inscription that has all but vanished since it was written, this mosaic from the year 867 is the first representation to have been displayed in churches following the Iconoplastic era. The mosaic of the Angel Gabriel may be seen in the arch to the right of the half-dome, whereas the mosaic of the Angel Michael that was gracing the column across from it sadly crumbled during an earthquake.
Let’s not forget to note that the nave also contains various pieces of art, including mosaics of the saints Ignatius, Saints Linus, and Ignatius Theophoros. It is now unknown if the mosaics on the pendants beneath the dome, which were most likely created in the 14th century, depict Seraphim or Cherubite angels. This section also includes replicas of these 19th-century mosaics. In 1933, the mosaics were unearthed after the walls’ thin plaster coatings were removed.
Mehmed the Conqueror accorded special importance to this demolished church after the conquest and commanded that it be turned into a mosque right away, but he left the church’s name alone. As a result, the nave of Haghia Sophia, also known as Hagia Sophia, was expanded to include a pulpit and a muezzin mahfil. The main nave also included two sizable jars made of gooseberry (alabaster) that were discovered in Bergama.
Sultan I. Abdülmecid hired the Swiss Fossati Brothers to renovate the interior between 1847 and 1849. The mahfil, which was constructed during this time period next to the sultan’s half-dome, is represented by an eight-round painting by Kazasker zzet Efendi on which the names of Allah, Muhammad, Ebu Bekir, mer, Osman, Ali, and his sons Hasan and Hüseyin are written in calligraphy and hung on columns. When the mosaics were too damaged to be cleaned, the Fossati Brothers covered them with a thin coating of plaster and drew the mosaic motifs on the plaster.
Like the majority of the visitors, the “Sweating Column,” also known as “St. You won’t want to leave without trying your luck at Gregory’s Column. To keep up with this custom, which some claim dates back to the 13th century but may perhaps be older, you must stand in line and insert your finger into the hole on this large column.
The nave’s pier was constructed so long ago that, in the opinion of those who visit Hagia Sophia, it has accrued historical significance over time.
The galleries, which span around three sides of the structure and offer spaces for female devotion, are the greatest places to appreciate Hagia Sophia’s immense magnificence. Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora’s names, as well as the initials of their titles Basileus (emperor), and Augusta, are inscribed on the Byzantine basket-like capitals on the columns that support the galleries and are constructed of white marble from Marmara Island (empress). In addition to all of these, the distinctive mosaics in this area are what make mounting the ramp and exploring the galleries so intriguing.
The image of Emperor Alexander (reign period 912–13), who was infamous for his ruthlessness despite having a brief reign and passing away without warning, may be found in the north gallery. The empress and her entourage are only permitted in the western gallery. The throne is indicated by the green marble circle in the center of the gallery.
The south gallery has the most intriguing mosaics, including one panel that shows Jesus being consecrated to Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (reigning from 1042 to 55) and his wife Zoe. In another, the Pantocrator monastery’s founders, Emperor John Komnenos (r. 1118–43) and his wife Irene, are shown praising the Virgin Mary. they have already After their younger son Alexius succeeded his father as emperor in 1122, his image was also included in the mosaic.
The mosaic with the lower portion shattered, known as “Deisis,” which depicts John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary praying to Jesus on behalf of all humanity, is the most stunning of them all. Look at the mosaic from a little further forward; both sides of Jesus’ face will be equalized, and Jesus’ eyes will be directly looking at you. Don’t assume it’s a mistake that the two sides of his face are shown differently from one another.
Enrico Dandolo (1107–1205), the Duke of Venice, who was in charge of the horrifying raids on Constantinople during the Crusade (the tradition has it that the Duke’s bones were fed to the dogs once the city was retaken), is buried here, as indicated by the gravestone you will see in this section. The doors are known as the Gates of Heaven and Hell because of the key reliefs on them. They are a little ahead of the Empress Lodge and were installed in the gallery for an unknown reason at an unknown time.
The mirror you will see above the door as you leave the museum through the side doors outside the narthex was actually positioned there to draw your attention to a magnificent mosaic behind you that you were unable to see. In the mosaic, which is from the 10th century, Emperor Constantine is shown giving the Virgin Mary a model of the city and Emperor Justinian is shown giving the Virgin Mary his model for the church. You pass through the Warriors’ Pass on your way out, where the emperors left their crown and sword when they entered the church and where their warriors are waiting for him to return.
This vast area, which is Istanbul’s tourism hub and is situated between Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Park, and the Archaeological Park, is always crowded with tourists from all over the world. In honor of his mother Helena Augusta, Constantine the Great gave the name Augusteion to this large plaza. The Greek inscription discovered on a small door on the sea walls next to Little Hagia Sophia is believed to be the last piece of this statue, which Justinian erected in the years that followed in the center of the square leading to the main entrances of the Great Palace, also known as the Chalke or Bronze Palace, and the Patriarchate Palace.
The Roxelana Baths
The Zeuxippus Bath, constructed in 196 for Roxelana, the wife of Suleiman the Exquisite, also known as Haseki Hürrem Sultan, was built next the magnificent double bath Mimar Sinan constructed in 1556 at the corner of Sultanahmet Square. Hopes started to grow that the structure, which was most recently used as a carpet shop but is one of the most stunning bath complexes to have endured to the present day, would reopen as a bath.
Istanbul Archaeological Museum, which is located in the garden, features artifacts discovered during the hotel’s development in 2009.
The wooden buildings on the street between the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia’s outside walls were left unoccupied until the 1970s, but the Turkish Touring and Automobile Association, led by elik Gürsoy, whose signature can be found in several locations across Istanbul, made an impact here. With the houses now functioning as hotels following restoration, a fresh perspective on hotel administration has emerged. The lovely cobblestone-paved Soukçeşme Street is currently off-limits to cars. The Istanbul Library, which also houses elik Gülersoy’s book collection, and the Sarnç Restaurant, which is a component of this complex, are surrounded by a row of pastel-colored homes, adding to the mood of nostalgia.
Istanbul Handicraft Center
The Kabasakal Madrasa, which goes back to the 18th century and was rebuilt in 1987, is where the center is located. The Handicrafts Center’s additional surprise is the chance to observe the artists at work. You will find a serene sanctuary that will transport you away from the chaos of the outside world when you stroll through the Yeşil Ev Hotel.
Sultanahmet Prison/Four Seasons Hotel
There aren’t many structures in the world that once held criminals before being transformed into a five-star hotel. One of these, the Four Seasons Hotel, housed prisoners up until the 1970s, including heroin dealer Billy Hayes, well-known for his terrible “Midnight Express” (a similar venue in Malta was used instead of the original in the film). Along with cartoonist Orhan Coplu, writers Nazm Hikmet and Yaşar Kemal were also well-known people who were sentenced to serve time in this location.
The prison, which was constructed in 1919 and is considered to be one of the most exquisite representations of Istanbul’s first National Architectural Movement, is regarded to be the creation of architect Vedat Tek. “Istanbul Criminal Detention Center” is written in Arabic above the door.