Istanbul’s Aya Sofia Museum has had a chequered history but it remains the one sight in Istanbul that should not be missed.
The Church of the Holy Wisdom, known also as Hagia Sophia in Greek and Aya Sofia or Ayasofya in Turkish, is a former Byzantine church that became a mosque in Ottoman times and is now a museum.
The original church was built by Constantine the Great in the 4th Century AD but this was burnt down as was a later church built on the same site by Emperor Theodosius 11. The third reincarnation of Aya Sofia was consecrated on Dec 26, 537
In 1454, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks who ordered the building to be converted to a mosque. All the beautiful greek icons, bells and alters were removed and the mosaics plastered over. Islamic features such as the mihrab and minarets were added.
Aya Sofia then closed in 1931 until the Republic of Turkey opened it as a museum in 1935.
Once you are inside, don’t rush to walk through the large bronze doors which offer glimpses of the interior, but linger in the passage way .
This entrance is known as the Imperial Gate as it was the entrance only used by the emperors. Above it, is the Imperial Gate Mosaics dating from the 9th or 10th century. The emperor of the time is shown kneeling at the feet of Christ Pantocrator.
One of the first things Atatürk did when he took over the mosque in 1931 was to take down the boards covering the mosaics and restore them to their original condition.
Following in the the footsteps of the emperors, step inside and you will be overwhelmed by the size of the interior.
The magnificent dome for which Aya Sofia is so famous is 55 metres above the floor and 33 metres wide . To give you an idea of the size, the mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in the smaller dome of the apse above, is five metres high.
Christian and Muslim religious art coincide here with four large medallions printed with the names of Allah and Mohammed and two early caliphs, hang nearby. These had been originally removed but were rehung as a gesture to Muslim fundamentalists.
Most of the Muslim additions are on the ground level.
Because Muslim women were separated from the men at prayer time, the upstairs gallery surrounding the nave was used by them.
The southern part of the upstairs gallery was originally used as a council meeting area. The areas were separated by a large marble door which was given the title of the Gates of Heaven and Hell.
Wander through these doors and you will find some of Aya Sofia’s most famous mosaics, the best known being the Deësis Mosaic which depicts a triumphant Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
From the high windows of the gallery level, the view is spectacular. In one direction, you have the view over the Sea of Marmara and in the other is the Blue Mosque.
As you leave you pass through the Vestibule of the Warriors. Don’t forget to look back to see a one last wonderful mosaic depicting Constantine the Great presenting a model of Constantinople to the Virgin Mary and on the left, the Emperor Justinian presenting the church of Haghia Sophia, which he rebuilt.
Aya Sofia is open everyday except Monday from 9-7pm .
Ticket cost: 25 TL
Address: Ayasofya Square in Sultanahmet
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