The grand Hagia Sophia towers over the city of Istanbul and is one of the world’s most interesting religious buildings. This is the ultimate guide to this grand cathedral and its ancient history. Walk the grounds and admire the wonderful artworks dating back thousands of years. Take the time to explore the historic building that so uniquely displays the fusion of religious expression from ancient times.
An eventful history
The most striking feature of the city is the grand dome. When it was constructed, it was even more impressive as the building methods were ahead of their time. However, the weight of the dome caused it to collapse in 558, but it was once again rebuilt, this time to an even greater heights in 562. The interior is a truly astonishing sight, embellished with colored marble and ornamental stone inlays taken from other ancient buildings.
A home to many religions
Built in 537 AD, by Emperor Constantine the Great, Hagia Sophia served as the main cathedral and bishop’s seat of the city. The name translates to ‘Holy Wisdom’, however the original name was Megale Ekklesia, meaning ‘Great Church’. The original structure was destroyed during riots in 404, then rebuilt in 415, only to be once again damaged by fire during the Nika revolt of 532. As the building was an important structure in the city, Emperor Justinian I ordered it to be rebuilt immediately.
In 1453, Mehmed II conquered the city of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia was converted into a Mosque. It remained as such until the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century. During Mehmed II’s reign, several of the original mosaics and artworks of the building were changed. However, these artworks were restored after the Turkish government secularized the building and turned it into a museum in 1934. In 1993, UNESCO noted that the building needed restoration and since then the building has undergone several rounds of necessary touch-ups.
When you visit Hagia Sophia, several things will catch your eye. First of all, the grand dome is as beautiful inside as it is on the outside. This is perhaps the most prominent feature of the building. The dome is supported by four pendentives, constructions permitting the placing of a circular dome on top of a square building. Each of these are decorated with a seraph, an angelic being from traditional Christian angelology. Smaller domes extend the western and eastern ends of the building, which gives the structure its characteristic shape and look.
A work of art
Interestingly enough, most of the beautiful artworks of the cathedral are on the east end as the original, Christian church was built towards the East, which was also the direction facing Mecca. Because of this, visitors are able to see a unique and interesting blend of both Christian and Muslim artworks side-by-side. At ground level, Muslim artworks dominate. Here you’ll be able to see the mihrab, a beautiful marble structure indicating the direction to Mecca, and the minbar where sermons were given.
The most famous part of the Hagia Sophia interior is the upper section where the galleries are found. Fantastic, ancient Byzantine mosaics are everywhere. The shapes vary as time has taken its toll on the old walls so many pieces are incomplete. The most famous mosaic is the Deësis Mosaic depicting a triumphant Christ flanked by Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. You can spend hours and hours exploring the grounds to see the remains of what was once one of the most important religious buildings of the region.
Secrets lurking in the depths
Even though Hagia Sophia has been a popular attraction for a long time, Dan Brown's 'Inferno' has truly helped spike the interest. Not only because it’s a beautiful building but because of the legends that surround it and the infamous tombs. The fact that this holy building has served as a center of prayer for Pagan, Christian Orthodox and Sunni Islam, makes it even more interesting.
In the buildings adjacent to the cathedral lies the remains of five Ottoman Sultans. These tombs have also undergone major restorations. The findings during restoration have confirmed previous ideas and provided new information about the Ottoman culture. Many have also tried to uncover the hidden secrets of what lies beneath the church. Some believe that the areas below the building, which are completely submerged in water, contain secrets worth exploring. A few have taken a dive to see the reservoirs and found historical artefacts as well as two passageways. Unfortunately, these have been closed off and are no longer subject for exploration.
To see this marvelous building and make up your own mind about its legends, secrets and one-of-a-kind artworks, choose from one of 9 Radisson Blu hotels as your base.