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Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. The majestic cathedral is one of the few monumental monuments that have survived to this day in all its splendor. Here, Christian mosaics coexist with Arabic script, energy is beyond description, and legends pale in comparison with reality.

Hagia Sophia: history

The monument is known by many names: Hagia Sophia, Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the Great Church, the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia and the Cathedral of the Wisdom of God. Regardless of the wording, the name should be understood as the dedication of the temple to Jesus Christ, who is the “Wisdom of God.” Hagia Sophia and Istanbul are connected by a centuries-old history, having studied which, you admire this unique attraction even more.


The main goal of the construction was to surpass the famous Jerusalem Temple of King Solomon – a religious building that became the heart of the religious life of the Jewish people. Therefore, over the course of five years, more than 10 thousand workers worked on the construction of a new symbol of Constantinople.


However, it was far from the first building located here. Even under the Byzantine emperor Constantine I, there was a small basilica here, built in the period from 324 to 337. But during the uprising in 404, it burned down. The same fate befell the next two churches.

In 532, the emperor Justinian, who was in power, in honor of the suppression of another rebellion, ordered the construction of a temple, “which has not been since the creation of the World and which will never be.” This event was the starting point of the history of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Anthimios of Tral, a professor of mathematics and geometry, and Isidoros of Miletus, the chief architect, were invited to work on the project.

However, it was not without difficulties. The main problem with the construction of Hagia Sophia was the land for the new temple, which belonged to the inhabitants of Constantinople, who refused to make a deal to sell it.


Then the emperor personally went home to convince his subjects to allow the construction to take place. And on February 23, 532, he laid the first stone in the foundation of the new Hagia Sophia.

Reference! Justinian personally walked around the construction site daily.

The basis of the building was a special light brick made from the soil of the island of Rhodes, during the laying of which cement with the addition of oil was used for the first time. Another innovation of this construction was lime prepared with barley water.

Ornamental stone, ivory, gold, silver and other valuables were used for decoration. In addition, from all over the empire, marble was brought to Constantinople, which was taken from former pagan temples. So 8 columns of green color appeared here from the sanctuary of Artemis in Ephesus and the same number of porphyrated ones from the Temple of the Sun in Baalbek.



The construction of the cathedral was completed in December 537. The city celebrated this event for 15 days. Procopius of Caesarea (a Byzantine writer) compared the new building that towered over the city with a “ship above the waves of the sea” and regarded it not as “a creation of human power and art”, but as a creation of “the deity itself”.


The first church service took place on Christmas Day. For the next 900 years, the cathedral was the residence of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople and the venue for major ecclesiastical and imperial ceremonies. During this time, he twice suffered from earthquakes. Both times the dome was destroyed and not just restored, but raised to a new height.

Reference! In 1054, an event took place in St. Sophia Cathedral, which served as the beginning of the division of churches into Catholic and Orthodox – on July 16, the legate of the Pope presented the Patriarch of Constantinople with a letter of exclusion.

In addition to natural disasters, the temple had a chance to survive several military conflicts. In 1204 Constantinople was captured by the crusaders and the cathedral was sacked. The half-destroyed building was partially restored only 57 years later.

The end of its history as a Christian church came in the middle of the 15th century, along with the fall of Byzantium. The last Orthodox service took place here on the night of May 28-29, 1453.

There is a legend that the invaders broke into the temple during the Divine Liturgy, and the priest who conducted it managed to hide behind a secret door in the wall of the building, taking with him the holy relics. He was never found. They say that if you approach the niche near the altar, you can still hear his prayer for salvation through the walls.


Reference! During restoration in the 1850s, this door was discovered and opened. Behind it were a small chapel and a staircase leading down.

Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

The Great Church remained the largest Christian temple until 1626 – until the construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. It was erected on a hill, thereby standing out very much in the panorama of Constantinople. Especially contemporaries were struck by the dome, which was visible from anywhere in the city.

Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople carried two main ideas – the power of Christianity and the dependence of the church on the state.

The first was expressed in the design of the building – a huge space that combines dark and light places. The second was traced in the interior decoration, similar to the design of the front halls of the palaces.

After the fall of Byzantium, Hagia Sophia was lost to the Christian world. But it was thanks to her that Kievan Rus became Orthodox: when the ambassadors of Prince Vladimir arrived in Constantinople, they were invited to worship in the Great Church. They liked the temple and the ceremony so much that upon their return, the representatives advised the ruler to convert to Christianity. In 1453, the temple was converted into an imperial mosque, and the building began to bear the name Hagia Sophia.



Ottoman period

When Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror solemnly entered the city, he was struck by the grandeur of Hagia Sophia and immediately gave the order to attach minarets to it. From that moment, Hagia Sophia for 500 years becomes the largest Muslim shrine after the Kaaba.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia mosque also changed significantly: the mosaics were covered with plaster, shields with inscriptions from the Koran were hung on the walls, jugs were placed for ablution, and a mihrab and a minbar were installed.

Reference! Due to the fact that the temple was designed as a Christian one, the altar was oriented to the east, so the Muslims had to install a mihrab in the southeastern part of the cathedral. As a result, worshipers were forced to sit at an angle.

Until the middle of the 19th century, there were no significant restorations of the building. However, in 1847 it was in danger of collapse, and the history of the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul could have ended there. But Sultan Abdulmejid I ordered the architects Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati to carry out the restoration.

During this period, the compartment intended for the prayers of the emperors was demolished, and another mihrab was built in its place. At the same time, large round medallions with inscriptions denoting the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, as well as the first 4 caliphs appeared on the walls of the Sofia mosque. They are the largest works of Islamic calligraphy in the world.



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Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul

After the split of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Atatürk came to power, signing a decree in 1935, according to which the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was awarded the status of a museum. At the same time, work began on cleaning the frescoes and mosaics from plaster.

Since then, there have been constant disputes between representatives of religions: some demanded that the cross be returned to the temple and that all Muslim details be destroyed, others were eager to turn the cathedral into a functioning mosque.

Reference! In 1985, the cathedral was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.


Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – Hagia Sophia again

On July 10, 2020, a new historical stage began for Hagia Sophia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed the decision of the State Council on the abolition of the decree of the Ataturk government of November 14, 1934 on the transformation of Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum.

The President made an appeal in which he said that Hagia Sophia would begin to operate as a mosque from July 24, 2020. Its visit, like all other mosques, will be free, and the entrance will be available to everyone, regardless of religion. On the same day, for the first time in decades, the adhan, the call to prayer, sounded in Hagia Sophia.


Myths and legends


Since the appearance of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, it has made an indelible impression on people, so a large number of myths and legends have arisen around it.

According to one of them, the plan of the future cathedral was brought to Justinian in a dream by an angel demanding that a temple be built in the name of “Hagia Sophia”. However, there is a version that the angel was actually the disguised wife of the emperor, who asked her husband to build a sanctuary in honor of the pagan goddess of the same name.

Another legend says that the cathedral could have been much more luxurious – Justinian planned to cover its walls with gold. However, astrologers predicted that “at the end of the age, poor kings will come, who, in order to seize all the riches of the temple, will tear it down to the ground.” After these words, the emperor decided to decorate the building more modestly.

There are also many beliefs about interior items. For example, it is believed that the columns of the cathedral were carved by the decree of King Solomon from the rocks of Elbrus and other sacred mountains. Moreover, giants, fairies and genies performed this complex work.


And the southeast pillar of the gallery is the place where the angel who guarded the temple used to live. In Constantinople, there was a legend about him: he allegedly appeared to a boy left to guard the inventory for lunch, and sent the child to hurry the workers. Moreover, he volunteered for this time to replace him at his post. Justinian was in the temple and ordered the young man to leave immediately so that the angel would remain in the church forever.

On one of the slabs of the cathedral you can see a handprint. According to legend, it belongs to Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople: the Sultan rode into the church on horseback, but the animal got scared and reared up. In order not to fall out of the saddle, the rider had to lean on the wall.



Turkey’s Hagia Sophia is a classic basilica with a rectangular base (70×75 m) and has two levels – the ground floor and the gallery. The first tier was previously intended for the clergy, the emperor, as well as for male believers. Women during worship were upstairs.

Cathedral plan

There are nine entrances to the building. Central – the famous Imperial Gate, located on the western part of the building. According to legend, they were created from the remains of Noah’s ark and were used only during major holidays. Only rulers and patriarchs had the right to pass through them.

The rest of the time, the emperors with their retinue used the southwestern door – the Horologion, through which tourists enter the building today. This is a small passage leading to the inner narthex (extension) – the Vestibule of the Warriors, where the guards used to be and it was customary to leave weapons. There is also a ramp leading to the top floor with three choirs (open galleries):

  • northern – for women of the middle class;
  • western – for the empress and her retinue;
  • south, which is a deliberative room of the patriarchate.

After the vestibule there is an external narthex – a spacious bright gallery through which you can get into the domed room, 55 m high.


The main part of the Hagia Sophia is located under a huge hemispherical dome, the diameter of which is 31 m from east to west and 30 m from north to south. It consists of 40 radial arches. There are 40 windows in the drum, and they are located at the minimum possible distance. This allows you to achieve the effect of “floating” the roof in the air.

The interior of the building is divided into three naves (rooms). Two of them are narrow and located at the edges, and one is wide in the central part. Together they form a cross.

Smaller domes descend from the main dome, all of them resting on vaults. This design allows the most even distribution of the load. Additionally, the roof is supported by arches, each of which has 3 rows of windows cut out.

Reference! In the original design, the Cathedral was illuminated by 214 windows, but due to additional buildings and reconstructions, only 181 of them remained.

The northern and southern façades are additionally reinforced with towers, which take on the main pressure of the arches. In addition to them, near the main part of the temple there are minarets built by the Turks after the temple was turned into a mosque.



About the interior of the church of the times of Justinian, it remains to be judged only by indirect data. According to researchers, at that time the cathedral was decorated with dogmatic icon and plant mosaics. It is also known that the dome originally contained a giant image of a cross.

The walls of Hagia Sophia were lined with marble inside. Presumably, its layers were sawn into thin layers and opened like a book. The floor of the temple was decorated with complex patterns of porphyry and marble of different colors. Instead of an iconostasis, 12 silver columns with gold fragments in the upper part were installed in the hall, designed to hold portraits of saints.

The throne consisted of cast gold boards and pillars, and its upper part was made of alloys of various metals mixed with precious stones. This structure was surrounded by columns of jasper and porphyry.

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In total, the Hagia Sophia inside is decorated with 104 columns, of which 40 are in the lower tier and 64 in the upper. The area to the right of the entrance is the Center of the Universe, the place where emperors were crowned. It can be recognized by the interlacing of multi-colored circles. There is a version that a prophecy is encrypted in the pattern.

However, after a series of destruction, looting, rebuilding and restoration, the interior of the temple has undergone major changes. Now frescoes and mosaics coexist with calligraphic panels, the dome is decorated with surahs from the Koran, and a mihrab, minbar and the Sultan’s bed have appeared in the interior. In addition, traditional candles have been replaced by lamp chandeliers.


The right part of the first floor is reserved for the library, collected by Sultan Mahmud I. At the moment it is empty – the books were taken to other museums. You can recognize the room by the carved golden lattice.

Hagia Sophia map


Unique exhibits of Hagia Sophia

All the walls of the St. Sophia Cathedral, with the exception of those covered with marble, were decorated with mosaics, which were made of precious stones and metals.

The oldest of them date back to the 6th century and contain floral and geometric motifs. Later versions are distinguished by the presence of figures – they depict Jesus Christ, other saints, as well as members of the imperial families.

A bit of history

Figurative images were created already after the period of idolatry, which fell on the years 726-787, and then returned to 815-843. At this time, the production and use of any religious images, including icons, was prohibited.

In this regard, many mosaics and paintings in the Hagia Sophia were destroyed, taken out or simply covered with plaster. Later they were restored and supplemented with new ones. However, the images were again seriously damaged during the crusade. At the same time, many of them were taken to Italy.


It was not possible to fully restore the mosaics. And after 1.5 centuries, the temple was captured by the Turks. However, Mehmed II ordered that the surviving images be preserved, so the workers simply painted them over. Due to this, during further reconstruction, many mosaics and frescoes were restored.

Reference! Restoration work after the announcement of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as a museum lasted 18 years. Experts from all over the world took part in them.

Mosaic of Hagia Sophia

The first mosaic cycle in the temple dates back to 867. It includes images of the apse (protrusion of the building) and the adjoining platform with the throne.

Here is the Mother of God with the Christ Child on her knees and two archangels on the sides. To create the image, smalt with gold inclusions of different sizes was used, which made it possible to achieve the effect of intense flicker.

When the image of the Mother of God appeared here is unknown. It is believed that it was part of the original mosaic system created under Justinian. Its author was a holy monk-artist, whose hands were mutilated by iconoclasts during persecution.

But the original image has not survived in its entirety to this day. The mosaic that tourists see today was recreated by St. Photius.


When the work was completed, he called it “a sign of the victory of Orthodoxy over heresy.” During the restoration, the inscription was added to the mosaic: “The images that the deceivers overthrew here, the pious rulers restored.”

Mosaics of the southern vestibule and the northern tympanum

Also, the images in the vaulted room, located in the southwestern corner above the southern vestibule of the temple, belong to the first period of the creation of the frescoes of the Hagia Sophia. On the entrance wall there is an image of the Mother of God, Jesus and John the Baptist.

And on the vault there are 12 figures, of which today you can recognize only the prophet Ezekiel, the emperor Constantine and the first martyr Stephen.

In the arches there are semi-figures of the apostles, as well as four holy patriarchs of Constantinople. These images are of rather poor quality and are believed to have been created by people from monastic circles.

In the deepening of the wall, bordered by an arch, there are images of 16 Old Testament prophets and 14 saints. Only mosaics with John Chrysostom, Ignatius the God-bearer and four other bishops have survived to this day.


Narfik entrance mosaic

The western part of the church is decorated with a mosaic with a very rare image of Jesus Christ sitting on a throne. His left hand holds the Gospel, opened with the words: “Peace be with you. I am the light of the world,” and the right one blesses.

On either side of it in medallions are portraits of the Virgin Mary, Archangel Michael and Emperor Leo VI. The composition reflects a solemn religious ceremony.

Portrait of Emperor Alexander

The northwestern gallery is decorated with a portrait of Emperor Alexander, created in 912. The mosaic is one of the votive images and is a lifetime portrait of the ruler. She shows Alexander at the Easter service.

Mosaic of the south vestibule

The walls of the southern vestibule demonstrate a plot from ancient art. The mosaic depicts the Mother of God sitting on a throne with a baby, whom Constantine brings as a gift the city of the same name, and Justinian – the Hagia Sophia.

By the way, this is the only portrait in which the emperors are depicted together.



Mysterious sights

One of the most famous mysteries of the Hagia Sophia temple in Istanbul is the “weeping” column. It is believed that she can heal people and fulfill their cherished dreams, which is why she is often called the “column of desires.”

Its unique properties were discovered by Justinian, who, suffering from a headache, once leaned against a pillar and felt relieved. They say that this is due to the fact that Gregory the Wonderworker consecrated it.

Another legend says that the column is “weeping” because the saliva of the Prophet Muhammad, earth from Mecca and water from the Zamzam spring are added to the mortar next to it.

Another legend explains the appearance of a hole in the surface of the pillar, where tourists put their fingers today to make a wish. According to legend, this is a trace of the hand of St. Elijah, who corrected the curvature of the column during construction.

Another mystical attraction can be considered a “cold” window. At first glance, this is an ordinary opening located on the second floor in the southern part of the cathedral. However, cold air blows out of it even in extreme heat.

The temple has unique doors, each of which is covered with a certain symbolism. But the problem is that no one can determine their number – every time the count starts, all of a sudden there are all new instances that no one has seen before.



flooded dungeon

Travelers who visited the city in the 15th-17th centuries testified that under the Hagia Sophia there was a dungeon with passages, huge water tanks and tunnels for its supply.

The first attempts to verify the veracity of these stories were made in 1945. Then the American researchers decided to go down into the dungeon and pump out water from there. However, the attempt was unsuccessful – the liquid level did not decrease even after several hours of work.

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After 43 years, the team of Turkish documentary filmmaker Goksel Gulensoy also decided to explore the waters under the Hagia Sophia. Work on the project lasted almost 15 years, during which time 3 dives were made: in 1988, 2009 and 2013.

It turned out that under the temple there really are tunnels leading to the surface, as well as crypts and catacombs. In addition, tightly closed doors were found, behind which, perhaps, the very tanks that eyewitnesses spoke of are located. Have not been able to verify this yet. However, a scan of the building reveals the presence of a vast space underneath.


Walk along the walls of the Cathedral

On the western side of the temple is an ancient baptistery – a room intended for baptism. It used to house the largest font in Constantinople, carved from a single piece of marble.


Today it is taken out of it and is in the portal. The baptistery was used for some time to store candle oil, but then it was converted into the mausoleum of the sultans Mustafa I and Ibrahim.

Near the building are other tombs. They are single-chamber rooms of 6- or 8-coal shape. In the center of each of them are sarcophagi. The bodies of Murad III, Selim II, Mehmed III with their families are buried here. Free admission.

Reference! When examining the mausoleums, it is necessary to take off your shoes, and women additionally cover their hair with a scarf.

Not far from them is the building of the Turkish bath – Alexandra Anastasia Lisowska Sultan Hamam, which was built by Suleiman the Magnificent for his wife. By the way, the girl was in his harem for some time as a slave.

On the territory around the temple there are also the remains of ancient churches found in the process of archaeological excavations. Here you can see parts of columns, steps, sarcophagi, etc.

There is also a Turkish Rococo ablution fountain in the courtyard. Nearby are the buildings of the dining room and elementary school (madrasah), as well as a room for the keeper of time, whose main task was to call people to prayer.


Small Hagia Sophia

The Little Hagia Sophia Mosque is a former church in honor of St. Sergius and Bacchus, Roman soldiers who were among the first to convert to Christianity and were killed for their faith. The temple was built by Justinian immediately after his accession to the throne in gratitude for saving his life.


The fact is that the emperor was accused of conspiring against his uncle, who was in power at that moment. However, the saints appeared to the ruler in a dream and convinced his nephew of his innocence.

It is believed that the work on the project was carried out by Anthimios and Isidoros. This assumption is based on the external similarity of the mosque with the Hagia Sophia. There is also a version that the Small Hagia Sophia was a “working” model on which architectural techniques were tested before the construction of the Great Church.

The building is an octagon topped with a large dome. When viewed from above, it resembles a star. While the cathedral was Orthodox, the surface of its walls was decorated with frescoes and mosaics.

However, after the Sophia Temple in Istanbul was turned into a mosque in the 15th century, the images were painted over with lime. Today, blue ornaments are applied to the walls, and the room is decorated with Arabic calligraphy.


Reference! The mosque is active. Nearby is a Muslim cemetery.


Interesting Facts

Many different stories are connected with Hagia Sophia, which formed the basis of interesting facts about this place.

  1. For the decoration of the temple, 12 varieties of marble were used.
  2. The construction of the cathedral cost Byzantium 3 annual incomes.
  3. Despite the fact that in Constantinople they tried to adhere to the Roman and Hellenistic traditions in art, Justinian wished to build the Great Church in the Byzantine style.
  4. Most of the graffiti found in the temple was made by people from Russia.
  5. Princess Olga was baptized in the Great Church in 957.
  6. Within the walls of Hagia Sophia is the empty tomb of Dandolo, the man who led the Crusaders during the assault on Constantinople.
  7. One of the most unusual sights of the temple is the cat Gli. Most often it can be found near the Imperial place. There is an opinion that the spirit of Justinian was revived in the animal. The cat is very famous – he even has a photo with Obama.
  8. There is an international movement seeking to “liberate” Sophia and ensure that people are allowed to pray in the cathedral.
  9. Turkish and Greek sources, which refer to the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, testify that on the eve of the fall of the city, the temple suddenly lit up with a strange and very bright fire, which rushed into the sky through the windows of the dome. It is believed that on that day the guardian angel left his post.


Is it worth traveling with children

A visit to the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul will be interesting for school-age children who have already managed to get acquainted with the amazing history of Byzantium, its art and architecture during the lessons. Usually this period takes place in the 5th-6th grade.

Then little explorers will be happy to stroll through the halls and listen with interest to the guide’s story. Moreover, there are really many things in the temple that are worth paying attention to.

Boys can be captivated by stories about wars and secret dungeons, girls can be interested in myths and legends. Young visitors will not be able to remain indifferent:

  • to the place of making wishes – not every day, with the permission of the parents, it is possible to stick a finger into an ancient column;
  • to the local fluffy guardian cat Glee;
  • to the “magic” air-conditioning window.

But small children should not be taken on a tour. Firstly, you can find yourself in an exhausting line for many hours under the scorching sun. Secondly, it will be difficult to keep their attention throughout the inspection of the structure.



Helpful Hints

Hagia Sophia Mosque is one of the most popular attractions in Istanbul, so in order not to stand in huge lines once again, it is worth paying attention to some recommendations.

  1. A visit to the mosque provides for compliance with all the rules for Muslim temples.
  2. It is forbidden to enter in shoes, as well as in clothes that expose the shoulders, legs and arms.
  3. Tourists are not allowed to enter during prayers.

Hagia Sophia Mosque is a must-see place in Istanbul. No wonder tourists flock to it from all over the world. This magnificent building amazes with its scale, history, beauty of the interior and, of course, secrets and mysteries that have not been explained to this day.

Hagia Sophia
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