Three days was never going to be enough to see all that Istanbul has to offer, but a natural starting point was Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya (the Church of Holy Wisdom). Now a museum, this cavernous building started life almost 1700 years ago as one of three churches dedicated to the elements of the Trinity in Constantinople: the city that Constantine the Great had declared the new capital of the Roman Empire.
The building we see today is the third building on the site, and dates from the mid 6th Century. Post the 1453 Conquest of Constantinople, it became a mosque remaining so until the 1930s when it became the museum that we see today. As part of that mosque complex, there was an adjoining primary school, fountains, an almshouse, and a complex of buildings where Sultans were buried.
So it’s a unique blend of Christian and Islamic heritage – now displaying some of the largest Islamic calligraphic panels in existence, as well as Byzantine mosaics.
The first view from the city’s Sultanhamet Park is pretty spectacular.
The site’s dome was the highest in existence (until the Renaissance) and appeared to float before eventually being reinforced by buttresses. As the scaffolding shows, repair is an ongoing task.
The building was a pre-eminent Greek Orthodox cathedral during the Byzantine era (apart from a few years as a Roman Catholic cathedral) and had a central relevance for Eastern Roman emperors. They were crowned here on this spot, known as the Ompithalon….
…and had a bird’s eye view of proceedings from this marble-clad loge.
Columns were rumoured to have come from the temple of Artemis at , and marble from all over the ancient world was used. The lighting in place now can only give some indication of the grandeur of how this structure would have looked when lit by candlelight and glittering mosaics.
There’s also a reminder that not everyone would have been rapt by church services – this 9th century graffitti from a Viking Varangian guard suggests that he wasn’t exactly delighted to be there.
Moving on the site’s post 1453 life, and there are stunning examples of craftsmanship on display in the lodge for the muezzin, as well as an imperial library, minbar and altar.