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Hagia Sophia, in English. Ayasofya, in Turkish.

One of the most historical architectural wonders of the world. In its 1,400 year life-span it has served as a Christian church, an Ottoman Mosque, and now a museum.

 

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HISTORY AS A CHURCH
The biggest church constructed by the East Roman Empire, has been constructed three times in the same location.

  1. Est. 360, the first church is constructed by Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor and the founder of Constantinople. It was then burned down after the public riot in 404.
  2. Est. 415, the second church is reconstructed by his son Constantius and the Emperor Theodosios II. It was then burned down during the Nika riots of 532, although fragments of it have been excavated and can be seen today.
  3. Est. 532, the third church was rebuilt under the personal supervision of Emperor Justinian I and is the structure that still stands tall today.

Immediately after the riots in 532, Emperor Justinian I (527–65) ordered the church to be rebuilt by Isidoros Milet and Anthemios Tralles who were geometry professors. Constructed and rushed, the church was completed in less than six years, and as you can imagine problems arose. About two decades later the roof finally collapsed and a new architect built the new roof you see today.

Famous for it’s massive dome, it is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. The interior rich with mosaics and marble pillars, along with 40 windows under the dome invites sun to shine in and reflect off the gold mosaics.

After completion, Justinian I exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”. For nearly 1,000 years it stood as the world’s largest church.

 

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HISTORY AS A MOSQUE
In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, known as Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, who ordered the church to be converted into a mosque.

During this period, minarets were built, Christian mosaic icons were covered, and exterior buttresses were added for structural support. It served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for almost 500 years.

 

MARK TWAIN’S IMPRESSION
In Mark Twain’s ‘The Innocents Abroad’ published in 1869, he mentions Hagia Sophia while visiting Constantinople.

I do not think much of the Mosque of St. Sophia. I suppose I lack appreciation. We will let it go at that. It is the rustiest old barn in heathendom. I believe all the interest that attaches to it comes from the fact that it was built for a Christian church and then turned into a mosque, without much alteration, by the Mohammedan conquerors of the land.

St. Sophia is a colossal church, thirteen or fourteen hundred years old, and unsightly enough to be very, very much older. Its immense dome is said to be more wonderful than St. Peter’s, but its dirt is much more wonderful than its dome, though they never mention it.

The church has a hundred and seventy pillars in it, each a single piece, and all of costly marbles of various kinds, but they came from ancient temples at Baalbec, Heliopolis, Athens and Ephesus, and are battered, ugly and repulsive. They were a thousand years old when this church was new, and then the contrast must have been ghastly—if Justinian’s architects did not trim them any.

The inside of the dome is figured all over with a monstrous inscription in Turkish characters, wrought in gold mosaic, that looks as glaring as a circus bill; the pavements and the marble balustrades are all battered and dirty; the perspective is marred every where by a web of ropes that depend from the dizzy height of the dome, and suspend countless dingy, coarse oil lamps, and ostrich-eggs, six or seven feet above the floor.

 

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HISTORY AS A MUSEUM
In 1934, under Turkish president Kemal Atatürk, the Turkish government secularized the building, converting it into a museum, and the original mosaics were restored.

 

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Now that the history lesson is over, this is a must see for any visitor. This museum does cost money, 30TL but it’s worth the price of admission. Expect to spend at least an hour maybe two inside. Even though there are plaques inside that revel some history, a guide book for this museum I think is needed to really truly understand it’s rich history and beauty.