|Hagia Sophia Church, Istanbul, Turkey|
Hagia Sophia (Greek), Sancta Sophia (Latin), Ayasofya (Turkish)—the Church of the Divine Wisdom —is among the most important buildings in the history of architecture.
Built on the order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-65 AD) in 537 AD, next to the Empire's Great Palace and the Hippodrome (map), it was the greatest church in Christendom until the construction of St Peter's Basilica in Rome a thousand years later.
Its wide, flat dome was a daring engineering feat in the 6th century, and architects still marvel at the building's many innovations.
The great church was a coveted prize of the young Ottoman sultan, Mehmet the Conqueror, when he took the city from the last holder of the Byzantine imperial title, in 1453. Cleaned, repaired and rededicated, it kept its sacred character as a mosque.
It became the model and starting-point for most Ottoman religious architecture to follow during the empire's later four centuries.
It served as Istanbul's most revered mosque until 1935 when Atatürk, recognizing its world-historical significance, had it proclaimed a museum, and so it remains.
Although most of the building is still a museum, a room on the east side was opened in 2007 as a prayer-place (İbadete Açık Kısmı), and the call to prayer is proclaimed from the four minaret above it that were added by the Ottomans.
Most of the 30 million gold tesserae (tiny mosaic tiles) which cover the church's interior—especially the dome—have recently been restored to the brilliance they boasted 1500 years ago. The scafflding used for the work, removed during 2012 when Istanbul was a European Capital of Culture, has now been returned to intrude upon the interior.
Although beautiful Byzantine mosaics can be seen throughout the building, the richest collection is on the mezzanine level reached by a rough stone ramp from the narthex.
Plan Your Visit
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) is one of the most significant buildings in the entire history of architecture. It is the most-visited museum in all of Turkey, receiving 25,000 visitors per day. I don’t like telling travelers what to do (I only recommend), so I’ll recommend strongly that you don’t miss it.
Hours & Costs
Here’s what you need to know first:
—Hagia Sophia is closed Monday.
—April 15 through September 30, it’s open from 09:00 am to 19:00 (7:00 pm). You must enter by 18:00 (6:00 pm) at the latest. The gallery (with the mosaics), closes at 18:30 (6:30 pm).
—October 1 through April 14, it’s open from 09:00 am to 17:00 (5:00 pm). You must enter by 16:00 (4:00 pm) at the latest. The gallery (with the mosaics), closes at 16:30 (4:30 pm).
—Admission costs TL25. Children 1 to 12 enter free.
—You may be able to buy your ticket in advance from a MUZE ticket machine, or online at http://www.muze.gov.tr/en.
—You should consider a Museum Pass: admission to six of Istanbul’s top museums for one price.
—You may want to leave much of your stuff (and certainly anything that can be considered a weapon) in your hotel room. Your purse/pack, etc. will be screened before entry. There is no place to store your stuff securely (locker, etc.) before entering the museum.
Make it More Pleasant
With 25,000 visitors daily, you really can’t avoid the crowds, but maybe you can avoid the worst of them. Here’s how:
—High season in Istanbul is mid-March through May and mid-September through October. Crowds should be smaller in winter (November through February) and in summer (June through August).
—Getting in line before the museum opens in the morning is probably better than coming mid-morning, but lunchtime, when some groups are gone, may be even better. If you come later in the day, remember that last entry is an hour before closing, and the gallery (where you must spend some time) closes 30 minutes before the museum closes.
—If you buy your ticket in advance or visit with a licensed guide, you can jump the ticket-buying line, but you will still have to go through the security check (which moves pretty quickly).
—For photography, consider the sun: Hagia Sophia is oriented ESE (east-southeast). Morning sun comes directly through the northeastern windows, noonday sun comes directly through the windows over the southeastern end and the mihrab (prayer niche), afternoon sun (which I like the most) comes in through the many southwestern windows. My opinion is that mid- to late afternoon is the best time for photography both inside and out.
—Audio guide for rent
—Café & snack bar
—No flash photography of the mosaics in the gallery (but with 25,000 visitors daily, most of whom have no idea how to turn their flash off, it happens all the time anyway)