The Aya Sofya (officially the Ayasofya-i Kebir Cami-i Şerifi, or the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque) is one of the Byzantine Empire’s surviving architectural marvels. Right in the heart of İstanbul’s historic center, this sacred building remains – even today – an important symbol of power.
Commissioned by Emperor Justinian, consecrated as the Hagia Sophia (Church of Divine Wisdom) in 537, converted to a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II (Mehmet the Conqueror) in 1453, declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935, and reconverted into a working mosque in 2020; the Aya Sofya’s changing status mirrors the history of İstanbul, tracking it through its period as Constantinople, capital of first the Byzantine, then Ottoman empires, up to the modern era when this sprawling metropolis remains central to Turkey’s story.
Come to boggle at the sheer audacity of Justinian’s vision, which raised history’s first pendentive dome atop a church so large its size would not be surpassed for nearly 1000 years. Then take in how this venerable structure’s design has merged Byzantine opulence with Ottoman grandeur down through the centuries and experience how today its religious significance has not diminished.
Byzantine finery inside the narthex
Known as the Beautiful Gate, the bronze entranceway to the narthex’s southwest vestibule is thought to have been filched from a temple in Tarsus and dates back to the 2nd century BCE.
Make sure to spy the 10th century mosaic on the lunette of the doorway leading from the southwest vestibule to the inner narthex. It shows the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, flanked by Emperor Justinian (on her left) offering her Hagia Sophia and Emperor Constantine (to her right) handing her Constantinople.
In the inner narthex, the central 7m (23ft) high, oak and brass Imperial Door, leading into the prayer hall, was originally closed to all but the Byzantine emperor’s procession. Look up to see one of the Aya Sofya’s finest mosaics in the lunette above the doorway. The glittering gold tesserae of this 9th century mosaic depicts an enthroned Christ with Emperor Leo IV bowing at his feet.
A fusion of Christian and Islamic design in the prayer hall
Whether you’re here to pray or soak up the glorious architecture of this near 1500 year old building, few visitors are left less than awestruck by the sheer scale of Justinian’s nave (now prayer hall).
Above, a multitude of chandeliers are strung from the soaring ceiling. Eight mammoth medallions, inscribed in gilt with the names of god, the Prophet Muhammad and the first caliphs, hover atop the cornice of the marble-paneled walls, while geometric designs creep up the yellow plastered semi-domes, domes and arches overhead.