The Church of the Divine Wisdom (Hagia Sophia in Greek) in Sultanahmet, Istanbul (map), is one of the most impressive and important buildings ever constructed.
Its wide, flat dome was a daring engineering feat in the 6th century, and architects still marvel at the building’s many innovations.
Called Hagia Sophia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin, Ayasofya in Turkish, it was built in 537 AD on the site of Byzantium‘s acropolis (map) by Emperor Justinian (527-65 AD).
Ayasofya was the greatest church in Christendom, and was meant to be. According to Prof. Robert Osterhout, it was built to surpass the gigantic Church of St Polyeuchtoserected by Julia Anitzia, scion of the line of Theodosian emperors.
Julia meant her church, a “recreation” of the Temple of Jerusalem, to symbolize her wealth, power and legitimate claim to the throne of Byzantium. Justinian had to out-build her to establish his own legitimacy—and he did.
His church remained the largest church ever built until St Peter’s Basilica was constructed in Rome 1000 years later. (Julia’s church, by the way, was destroyed by an earthquake. You can see a few pitiful ruins of it near the traffic under/overpass between the Istanbul Belediye Sarayı [City Hall] and Aqueduct of Valens [Bozdoğan Kemeri](map).
Being the world’s most impressive building, it’s no wonder that Mehmet the Conqueror proclaimed it a mosque soon after his conquest of the city from the Byzantines in 1453.
It served as Istanbul‘s most revered mosque until 1935 when Atatürk, recognizing its world-historical significance, had it proclaimed a museum, as it is now.
Although most of the building is still a museum, a room on the east side was opened in 2007 as a prayer-place (İbadete Açık Kısmı), and the call to prayer is proclaimed from the minaret above it
Ayasofya is awe-inspiring—one of the first things to see when you’re in Istanbul. Luckily, it’s right next to Topkapı Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Byzantine Hippodrome, and right across the street from Yerebatan Sarnıçı, the Basilica Cistern.
Most of the 30 million gold tesserae (tiny mosaic tiles) which cover the church’s interior—especially the dome—have recently been restored to the brilliance they boasted 1500 years ago. The interior was filled with scaffolding for 17 years, until March 2012. The scaffolding was removed that year, but in 2013 some scaffolding returned so that work may continue.
Be sure to climb to the mezzanine level to see the splendid Byzantine mosaics. (Although the mezzanine used to have more limited visiting hours, now it is open during the same hours as the museum.)
Hürrem Sultan Hamamı
The Hürrem Sultan Hamamı (Turkish bath of the Ayasofya mosque complex), on the southwest side of Ayasofya next to the park with the fountain, was designed by master architect Mimar Sinan and built for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent. It has been beautifull restored and is again in service as a hamam (Turkish bath).
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Hagia Sophia and its mezzanine gallery (with the mosaics) are open every day except Monday, from 09:00 am till 19:00 (7 pm) in summer, till 17:00 (5 pm) in winter.
The museum is closed in the morning on the first day of the Ramazan Bayramı, and several days of Kurban Bayramı.
Admission costs TL40; children 12 and under free. Consider the Istanbul Museum Pass.