Travels in Istanbul: Hagia Sofia

The Hagia Sofia (pronounced Aya Sofya) is quite possibly the most important building in Istanbul. Built by the eastern Roman emperor Justinian I as the Christian cathedral of Constantinople for the state church of the Roman Empire between 532 and 537, the church was then the world’s largest interior space and was a shining example of Byzantine Architecture. It was the largest church in the Byzantine Empire and was an Eastern Orthodox Church for all its years as a church, and was named the Church of the Holy Wisdom (except for the years 1204-1261, when it was a Roman Catholic Church during the Latin occupation).

Jesse and I first saw the Hagia Sofia at night

Then, in 1453, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, leader of the Ottomans, conquered Constantinople, renamed it Istanbul, and the Hagia Sofia was converted into a mosque. It was the principle mosque of Istanbul until 1616. It was the largest Cathedral in the World for almost 1,000 years, until the completion of the Sevilla Cathedral in Sevilla, Spain (Jesse and I saw the Sevilla Cathedral back in April!).

The mosaics and paintings and all pictures depicting Jesus, Mary, and others were covered up or removed; not to be uncovered until 1931. The original floor was also covered with carpet in 1498, and not be uncovered until the 19th century, and then not to be seen by tourists until 1935. In 1935, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, changed the building from a mosque into a museum.

Above; Our first visit to the Hagia Sofia was during the daytime, and the sun shone brightly through its many windows.

Over the years the minarets were added to the grounds, as well as a water fountain (see below), a madrassa (islamic school), library and soup kitchen were all added to the surrounding area, creating a külliye, or social complex.

The Hagia Sofia was converted back into a mosque by the current Turkish president in 2020; the floor was again covered in carpet and the christian images in the church itself were covered by sheets. You can see the long sheets in the picture below.

Once outside the cathedral area, off the carpet, there is a pathway leading to the exit of the grounds; in that hallway, there can be viewed a christian mosaic (which a mirror helps point out to visitors).

The Hagia Sofia is closed to visitors during prayer times, but we were able to enter during the last prayer time, at sundown, on our second visit. It was enlightening to hear the prayers and to get to be inside the mosque at dusk. After the prayers were finished, there were still many people inside, but nowhere near as many as there were during the day. The vibe is also much more relaxed, with many people sitting on the carpet in different corners; little kids running around, and people taking pictures and videos inside the massive structure.

Jesse and I found a place to sit against a wall, and just enjoyed being there, for almost a hour. We took pictures amongst our fellow visitors, and you can see worshipers at the front of the mosque.

We enjoyed being inside the Hagia Sofia so much we returned a third time, on our last night in Istanbul. After packing followed by a late dinner we made our final walk toward Sultanhamet Square, past the Blue Mosque, and entered the Hagia Sofia with only a few fellow tourists.

We sat on the opposite side of the mosque than the prior visit, talked about our time in Istanbul and Turkey, how much fun we had; though a little forlorn to be leaving, as I had looked forward to visiting Turkey more than any other place since we left Spain two months ago. It more than exceeded my expectations, and visiting the Hagia Sofia was my favorite place to visit. It is unforgettable, especially when looking at all the many hanging lights, that look a bit like shinning clouds.

It was the first major site we saw when we arrived in Istanbul, and it was the last. I could not have chosen a better place to welcome us and see us off.

We went through many different emotions during our time in Istanbul. Sometimes feeling overwhelmed, other times being so excited about the next day it was hard to sleep. There is so much to see and do, and there are so many people, native Turks, immigrants, tourists from all over the world, all doing their own thing, all existing cohesively and peacefully (we have never felt safer in such a big city, from petty theft and pick-pocketing to physical violence, there is simply none of that in the popular areas and neighborhoods). I cannot recommend a visit to Istanbul enough. So, until next time, Ciao Istanbul!

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Published by Phil Barrington

Currently living in Spain, Accountant by Day, Writer by Night. Lover of baseball, travel ,and spreadsheets. Check out my blog:

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