A guided tour through Hagia Sophia

On our final full day in Istanbul, we fulfilled a massive bucket list item for me: visiting the Hagia Sophia.

On the way over, I started to worry that it wouldn’t live up to what I had imagined for years; that maybe I’d become a jaded tourist who has had the privilege of seeing so many impressive and beautiful things that they no longer impact me with the same intensity. But then we stepped inside and the beauty of the space touched me so much that it left me speechless.

While we normally avoid groups for visits like this, we opted for a guided tour in order to skip the (anticipated) long line. Having walked by earlier in the week, we knew it could be quite a wait, and after 3 or 4 days trapped indoors with horribles colds, we wanted to make the most of every minute we had left. Turns out there was no line that day! But I would highly recommend booking with Istanbul Tourist Pass – it was very reasonably priced, the guide was a great storyteller and highly knowledgable, and the Hagia Sophia is definitely the kind of space you get more out with someone to explain it’s history and point out certain details.

One of the things that makes the Hagia Sophia so special, in my opinion, is the blending of various religions in one holy space. The church was built during Roman times and was a Christian place of worship for over 900 years, before the Ottoman Empire began and Istanbul (or Constantinople, as it was called) became Muslim. Then the Hagia Sophia was a mosque for over 600 years, until it was turned into a museum in 1931. The building as it stands now, with it’s impressive Byzantine architecture and massive domed ceiling was built in just 5 years in the 500’s under Roman Emperor Justinian I. When I say “blending of religions” I don’t just mean that the space was a church and then it was a mosque – the interior columns were taken from pagan churches across the empire (some from Africa, others was different areas in Turkey), and you can find details like a carving of tridents, representing Poseidon or Neptune (or, as our guide pointed out, Aquaman).

Our guide told us the stories behind the golden Roman mosaics that are prominently displayed in the Hagia Sophia. They all feature Christ, and as Christ is viewed as a religious prophet in Islam, they were not destroyed when the space became a mosque. They were, however, covered up since iconoclasm is not allowed in Islam, and only revealed again when the space became secular. As always, there’s a bit of the worldly mixed in with the religious in these mosaics. One shows an Emperor on his knees before Jesus, asking for forgiveness because he wanted to marry more than the 3 times that Christianity allowed at the time. Another shows Jesus in between Emperor Constantine who is holding a model of the city he formed and Emperor Justinian who is holding a model of the Hagia Sophia, both men offering up their contributions to God and to the world.

Looking at the altars, you can quickly tell which parts were added during the Islamic reign of Constantinople: while the windows and the building itself faces towards Jerusalem, the Islamic additions face towards Mecca, so they look tilted towards the right.

A few other interesting points:

  • There are small X’s carved into the floor in a circle that were used to mark the position of the dome when it was rebuilt to ensure that it remained centered. While the dome used to be completely centered, it has shifted slightly due to the earthquakes that have hit the city.
  • We were introduced to the Hagia Sophia cat, a 16 year old who lives (and spends a lot of time napping) in this museum.
  • There is a mark that looks like a handprint on one of the stones on a wall – no one knows who it belongs to, or if that’s really what it is.
  • There is an area known as the “bellybutton” of the Hagia Sophia. It’s not in the middle, but it’s where Emperors used to be crowned because it’s the acoustic center of the space.
  • One column has an indent where you can put your thumb and if you can rotate your hand all the way around while still touching the stone, your illness can be cured. It’s known as the Wishing Column.
  • Different sized doors lead into the Hagia Sophia – the largest one was only for the Emperor and his people.

And now for some pictures!

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