For a millennium, the Hagia Sophia stood tall as the largest temple of Christendom humanity had ever seen. Constructed by emperor Justinian I. nearly 1.500 years ago, she is not only the most impressive building in Istanbul but one of the finest monuments ever created. Unrivalled for centuries, she is an extraordinary testament to the ingenuity of mankind.
Throughout the ages, humanity has witnessed the construction of countless marvellous monuments. However, as civilizations fell, so too crumbled their magnificent masterpieces. Once resplendent symbols for the might and greatness of entire nations, most have long vanished from the ever-changing surface of our planet, now merely fading remarks in ancient scripts.
Yet, as always, there are exceptions.
For nearly one and a half millennia, the Hagia Sophia has stoically watched as history unfolded along the hilly shores of the Bosporus, this most critical junction between Europe and Asia. As empires rose to prominence, she witnessed. As they collapsed, she endured. Not even the arrival of a new god could end her reign. Seemingly seamlessly, a church became a mosque, then much later a museum.
Though, not only since her reconversion into a sanctuary of the Muslim faith back in 2020, the Hagia Sophia has been just as much a place of political weight as she has been a house of worship. Therefore, to truly grasp the significance of this colossal temple and the cause for her construction, we must travel back to a time when racing quadrigas raised dust for the entertainment of the masses and the Byzantine public seriously questioned the legitimacy of their unbeloved sovereign.
A TEMPLE FROM THE ASHES
On a cold winter’s night in January of 532 CE, red flames danced on the dark waters of the Bosporus. Yet, it wasn’t signs of rejoicing, Constantinople was burning.
Infuriated by what they deemed unjust executions of two of their members and united in their mounting anger against the increasingly unpopular rule of emperor Justinian I, the demes of the Blues and Greens (comparable to modern-day ultras) were up in arms. Supported by rogue senators, sensing their chance for upheaval, the rioters besieged the royal palace, proclaiming Hypatius, nephew of former emperor Anastasius I., as the new sovereign. After five days, half of the city had succumbed to the flames.
However, convinced by his wife Theodora not to yield, Justinian plotted a vicious scheme. To incite division amongst the insurgent parties, he sent one of his most trusted eunuchs to negotiate with the Blues. Reminding them of Justinian’s endorsement of their faction and Hypatius’ affiliation with the Greens, as well as offering them a generous gift (bad tongues might call it a bribe), he managed to sway their allegiance. As they left the stadium, Justinian unleashed his soldiers on the oblivious Greens and leftover Blues.
As the last rays of the setting sun fell on the scorched walls of the Hippodrome, the sand of the arena had turned red with the blood of more than 30.000 slaughtered souls. By sheer brutality, Justinian had quenched the uprising and enforced his claim to the Byzantine throne. Yet, ever aware of the lingering resentment against his reign, he had to demonstrate his entitlement to the crown in earnest.
Thus, on the smouldering ashes of the previous Hagia Sophia, Justinian ordered the construction of a temple of truly divine proportions. So audacious was his ambition to legitimize his rule that his architects had to reinvent the wheel to realize his ludicrous vision. Built to be an inimitable testament to the glory of the Christian god and (much more so) solid support to his claim to power, it is said that Justinian himself burst into tears when her gates finally opened five years later.
However, the Hagia Sophia was not only a monument of her time. Perennial in her existence, the architectural finesse of her illustrious halls, vaulted domes, marvellous murals, and sheer grandeur showcases the incredible ingenuity of her erectors, capturing the minds of millions to this very day.
OF TRIDENTS AND CALIPHS
Although monumental, the exterior of the Hagia Sophia is surprisingly austere. Like an inconspicuous seashell concealing a precious pearl, nothing alludes to the greatness waiting behind her indomitable walls.
Yet, beyond the threshold of the Imperial Gate, the radiant glow of 7.000 candles, enthroned on dozens of bronze chandeliers, reveals the incredible extend of her cavernous halls. High-rising columns stretch towards distant galleries. Weathered murals and intricate mosaics ornament the enormous vaults and arches. A constant murmur echoes through the expanses of her splendid halls. And above it all hovers the main dome, carried by the power of angels. A temple of divine proportions. Utterly unique, forever unmatched.
Though, not unchangeable. The Islamic transformation is ubiquitous. A velvet carpet covering the marble floor (except for the Omphalion, believed to be the coronation place of the Byzantine emperors). Dozens of shoe racks, filled with the footwear of believers and tourists alike, lining the back walls. A barrier to separate worshippers and onlookers during prayer. The lavishly decorated mihrab and minbar adorning the apse. Eight giant, wooden discs, embellished with the names of Allah, the prophet Mohammed, his two grandsons Hussein and Hasan, as well as the four caliphs that led Islam after Mohammed’s death (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali).
And yet, beyond the architectural fusion of the two Abrahamitic religions, it is more subtle peculiarities, hidden in the shadows and expelled to the far corners of the building, that make you wonder. A handprint, perpetuated in stone, where no man can reach (some say it was the Virgin Mary; others suspect a giant or demon; even Mehmed the Conqueror has been named as the perpetrator). The gate of a pagan temple too tall to fit, simply welted into the ground and left open for eternity. Numerous stone plaques depicting dolphins and tridents, a clear sign of lingering pagan beliefs at a time when Christianity wasn’t yet fully established.
ELEVATED BY LEGENDS
However, Hagia Sophia’s appeal has never been limited to her architectonic exceptionalism. From her inception onwards, her unique character has also been constructed by the myriad of stories and myths, dwelling in the darksome corners of her ancient structure and perched on lofty railings and pendulous chandeliers, as much as it has been built by bare brick and mortar.
When Justinian first entered the inner sanctum, it is said that he became so overwhelmed by his emotions that amidst tears of joy he cried out: “Salomon, I have surpassed thee.” (a reference to the temple in Jerusalem). As the main dome collapsed, contemporaries deemed it a sign of divine punishment following the emperor’s presumptuous remarks 15 years earlier (in reality the construction was deficient from the start).
Another story speaks of a life-changing discovery. During the reign of Murat III., a simple peasant unearthed three massive, marble jars that had been concealed for centuries. As he opened the lids, his face lit up with the shimmer of gold. Informing the Sultan of his findings, he was graciously gifted one, while the other two were swiftly brought to the Hagia Sophia to be used as fountains for ritual ablutions. The fortunate farmer on the other hand opened a hammam, offering steaming baths and vigorous massages to this very day.
And then there is the less glorious tale of blatant 21. century vandalism. Believed to have been made of wood from Noah’s ark, the imperial gate was recently damaged by a few nefarious visitors, seeking a unique souvenir (allegedly they even ate the pieces). The damage has since been mended; however, this upsetting episode perfectly demonstrates the unique allure the Hagia Sophia has retained throughout the ages.
THE 8TH WONDER OF THE WORLD
For nearly one and a half centuries, the Hagia Sophia has now graced the Istanbul skyline. Surviving natural disaster, political upheaval, conquest, and the death of two empires, she is a rare constant in this everchanging metropolis and an incredible reflection of the city’s multifaceted past.
Throughout her long and eventful history, Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans alike sought recognition, refuge, and guidance within her grand halls, further accentuating her outmost significance not only as a place of God but earthly affairs, as well.
In a world that loses itself in superlatives, she might be one of the few places that truly deserves them. Monumental in all aspects, her construction alone was a colossal undertaking. The ultimate result unrivalled. Though eventually surpassed in magnitude, her character (and certain architectonic features) remains unparalleled.
It comes with no surprise then that some consider her the 8th wonder of the world.
BEFORE YOU GO
Opening hours | 9:30am-11:00pm (every day)
Entrance fee | Free
Dress code women | Women are required to cover up (head, legs, shoulders). Skirts and scarfs are available at the entrance (you can bring your own of course).
Dress code men | Men should cover their knees as well, however, since the Hagia Sophia is such a tourist attraction nobody seems to care (double standards much). Consider doing it regardless, simply out of respect.
When to go | During the day it gets crowded. Really crowded. In fact, so crowded that entrance to the Hagia Sophia is temporarily suspended at times.
Therefore, I highly suggest visiting late in the evening (9:00-11:00pm). Not only will you avoid the queues but be able to genuinely enjoy this incredible monument without having to endure dozens of tour groups.