Hagia Sophia Museum (Ayasofya Müzesi) - Istanbul, Turkey

When I was in Istanbul, one of the fascinating places that I visited was Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya).  It's the biggest church constructed by the East Roman Empire in Istanbul and an amazing example of the Byzantine architecture that still exists today, not to mention well over a thousand years old!  In the Byzantine period, Hagia Sophia was the largest operating cathedral throughout Istanbul and the main location for the crowning ceremonies of rulers.  The Hagia Sophia of today is in its third construction and operates as a museum - Ayasofya Müzesi - one of the most prominent and most visited in the world, according to its website.  This Turkish landmark has a very interesting history leading up to the point when it was converted into a museum.

The original Hagia Sophia was completed on February 15th of the year 360, during the reign of Constantius II.  At that time it was known as Megálē Ekklēsíā, meaning "Great Church."  Apparently, Theodosius II thought another church structure was in order, so he ordered it so - an Architect named Rufinus oversaw that design and it was completed in the year 415.  Then, in 532 that second basilica burned down along with nearly half the city during the week long Nika Revolt (Nika Riots), thousands perished and it's considered the most violent riot in Constantinople's history.

Mere weeks after the devastating riots, Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of a third church, which he proclaimed would be bigger and better than all prior structures.  He chose prominent figures of the time as his architects, physicist Isidore of Miletus and mathematician Anthemius of Tralles.  Anthemius died during the first year, but after nearly six years of construction the third and currently standing Hagia Sophia was completed on December 27, 537.  After that, Hagia Sophia was used as a church for 916 (!!!!!!!!!!) more years, that is until the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in May of 1453 and Fatih Sultan Mehmet had Hagia Sophia renovated into a Mosque.  It remained in use as a Mosque for 432 years, until 1935 when Atatürk (the first President of Turkey) and the Council of Ministers decided to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum.  Here is a breakdown of Hagia Sophia's use by time period:

Eastern Orthodox Cathedral (537–1204)
Roman Catholic Cathedral (1204–1261)
Eastern Orthodox Cathedral (1261–1453)
Imperial Mosque (1453–1931)
Museum (1935–present)

Now that I've glossed over 1,600+ years and briefed you on the whirlwind history of Hagia Sophia's evolution, let's talk about the current structure….  Emperor Justinian I certainly followed through on his declaration of opulence!  He had marbles of various colors brought in from ancient cities in and around Syria and Anatolia, Eğriboz Island, Marmara Island, Afyon, and North Africa.  There are a total of 104 columns in the structure, including dome support columns from Egypt, and several others from the Temple of Artemis in Ephessus, Turkey.  All of the interior walls were covered in extravagant marble and mosaics made from a variety of materials.  At the time that Hagia Sophia was converted into a Mosque, it required additional support columns due to the damage it sustained throughout the years, including during the Holy Crusades when it was occupied by Latins (1204-1261), and from various earthquakes.  The minarets also serve the double purpose of support columns as well.  In total, there are 104 columns, 40 in the lower and 64 in the upper gallery.  

There are countless fascinating artifacts and ancient materials throughout Hagia Sophia to marvel at.  I highly recommend you visit if you ever find yourself in Istanbul!  I know more about Hagia Sophia after researching and writing up this article than I did back when I was actually there!  Therefore, I now know more about some of the interesting things I photographed inside.  I have provided some additional information quotes from the Hagia Sophia website below that correspond with the things in my photos.  I hope you enjoy tis post!  Have a wonderful day…


Here are some more of my posts about my trip to Istanbul:

Hagia Sophia has several Minarets, which are structures that are designed to be higher than the main structure and used for notifying invitation for prayer and for other announcements.  The minarets on this structure were designed by various architects, however the four most prominent identical minarets that you see in these two photos "...the southwest and northwest direction, they are built by Architect Sinan in Sultan Murat III period. With their 60 meters of height as well as their thick and massif patterns, they are completing main structure of Hagia Sophia. Various ornaments are added on these minarets at repairs carried out in 15th, 16th, and 19th centuries reflecting the characteristics of their periods."(read more)

This is where we entered...

Architectural ruins of columns and carvings on the left as you walk in...

When you enter, there is a hall with several of these enormous marble doorways with heavy wooden doors leading into the main domed area…  They are really spectacular!

I mean, just look at that marble threshold!!!!  That is over 1,600 years of foot traffic that has worn down that marble…  Fascinating!

I'm not sure which was the "Emperor's Door" there were several grandiose doors, but I found this information on the museum website:

"It is the largest door of Hagia Sophia dated to 6th century, which provides passing to the main structure from the inner narthex section. The Emperor door is 7 meters in length and made of oak and has a bronze frame. The leaves of the door are coated by bronze plates. The door had been used only by the Emperor and his retinue. East-Roman references says the door could be made of the woods of Noah's ark or the wood of the chest of which the Jewish holy plates kept in."


Once you walk through one of the doorways, this is what you see….


"The pendentives feature four unidentical angel figures. It is believed that these one headed six winged angels (seraphim) protect the Lord’s Throne in Heaven. The angels featured in the East are composed of mosaics whereas the two in the West have been damaged during the Eastern Roman period and have been renewed as fresco.

The faces of the angel figures featured on the pendentives were covered up with star shaped metallic lids during the Ottoman period. During the mosaic renovations in 2009, the lids covering the angel figures’ faces were opened and revealed."

As you can see from the scaffolding, at the time I was there it was undergoing some facial and structural repairs/restoration…

The great rounded calligraphic panes on the walls of the main place had been written by Kazasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi who was one of the famous calligraphers during the repairs between 1847 and 1849 of Sultan Abdülmecid period (1839-1861). Rounded calligraphic panes with 7.5 meters of diameter are written by gilt on green background made of hemp. There are 8 of these panes containing the names of Allah, Muhammad, and the four caliphs, namely Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali as well as the grandsons of Muhammad, namely Hasan and Husayn. The wooden hangers of the panes are made of lime since it is light and durable. The calligraphic panes are the largest ones in the Islamic world.

And then there was this huge hulk of a marble jug!  Actually, there were a few...

"Two pieces of cubes made of monolithic marbles at the lateral naves in the building belong to Hellenistic Period (BC 330-30) and had been brought from Bergama antique city. These cubes have been brought to Hagia Sophia in the period of Sultan Murad III (1574-1595) and can contain 1250 liters of liquid in average. They had been used for distributing juice to the public for holy nights and celebration prayers in the mosque period. The cubes have taps at their lower parts for consuming water in other days."

There was a really cool art exhibit going on by one of the local schools, I particularly liked these creepy figures!

There was also an interesting superstition to participate in…  So we did!


"There is a column with a hole in the middle covered by bronze plates at the northwest of the building which was also named as the perspiring column or the wishing column. In some references, it is indicated that this column had become blessed in due course among community. Rumors appeared in East-Roman period that it had a healing effect on humans. The legend has it that, Emperor Justinian wandering in the building with a severe headache leaned his head to this column and after a while he realized that the headache was gone. This story had been heard among the public and the rumor regarding the healing effect of the column got around. Hence, people believed that they would get better if they put their fingers into that hole on the column and then rub them to the place where disease is felt. According to another legend, this wetness is described as the tear of Virgin Mary….  As for today, people make their wishes by rotating their thumb a complete clockwise tour inside the hole."

I really loved this marble doorway/wall…can't you tell?  ;)

"The south galleria which was used for solemn meetings by patriarchate officials is separated from west galleria by a marble door. The door is viewed as two individual doors from the west galleria and there are plant, fruit and fish motives in panels on its surface. It is rumored that one side of the door represents paradise while the other one represents hell. The site entered through the door was used as a venue for solemn meetings and important resolutions of patriarchate officials as well as resolutions regarding to religious affairs of the state since Hagia Sophia was an imperial church. The Synode Assembly of Emperor Manuel Komnenos Period is known to be gathered here also in 1166. The resolutions of the meeting written on marble plates are hanged on the wall of exterior narthex."

Ah yes, and then there were the mosaics!  This is the one that caught my eye...

"On the western wall of Northern gallery, there is the mosaic board where the Deisis stage, considered as the start of renaissance in East Rome painting, is located. In the portrayol, Ioannes Prodromos ( John the Baptist) on the right and Virgin Mary on the left and in the middle Pantocrator Jesus Christ are located. In the mosaic, Virgin Mary and John the Baptist's prayers to Jesus Christ for the mercy of people during the doomsday are portrayed. Both 3 figures carry the characteristics of Hellenistic Era portrayol art...
There are several debates regarding the exact dating of Deisis Mosaic but the valid date that is currently accepted is the 12th Century."


Remember those support columns I was talking about earlier in this post?  Those babies are no joke...

Just in case that doesn't give you a good idea of how enormous are….

There was marble everywhere!  The columns, the floors...


I was completely enamor by those marble floors….

Also, marble all over the walls!  It was incredible...


Everywhere you look there is something to ogle… 


After lingering on the first floor for a while we made our way up to the second level via an ancient inclined stone path...

This is the view from the balcony area...


On the marble lip of the balcony wall there is an ancient carving from a Viking that dates back tot he 9th century:

"There is a scripture come down to Vikings on the marble banisters in the middle section of the south galleria. The scripture determined to belong to the 9th century contains a sentence meaning "Halvdan was here". The scripture is supposed to be made by a Viking mercenary in East-Roman period. A group of Vikings who was famous with their warrior nature had been participated to the imperial guard regiment in İstanbul which was mainly constituted by them which was called as "Varangian". This regiment built a reputation by fighting on behalf of the court in every region of the empire for approximately 200 years."

As we were leaving, we saw this beautiful fountain in the surrounding courtyard...

"Hagia Sophia Fountain built by Sultan Mahmud I (1730 - 1754) in 1740 is a masterpiece of Ottoman Architecture and one of the largest and most beautiful fountains in Istanbul. It is covered by a dome and an eave mounted on eight columns with muqarnas headings and eight arches. On the dome, there are a bronze tulip scripture of "Allah" written by carving in stack on top and a mirror scripture of "Muhammed" below and an "eulogium" on the upper and inner part of marble arcade. The fountain has 16 slices and each slice have bronze taps in the middle. There are tulip-shape bronze banners containing the scripture of "We have created everything from water" on the upper part of the joining section of sliced bronze water mains over the taps."

And of course, I had to get a shot with this funky tulip sculpture lined with Turkish money! The tulip is native to Central Asia and Turkey, however it is confused with being native to The Netherlands due to their large tulip fields/attractions and Flower Market.  I have done some posts on the Flower Market in Amsterdam, check them out here and here.  Read more about the history of the tulip in Turkey here, read about the Tulip Period, or  the Turkey International Istanbul Tulip Festival.

Here are some more of my posts about my trip to Istanbul:

(All photos in this post were taken by the author of this website, please do not report or reuse any of the photographs herein without express written permission.  Sources for historical information found at the Hagia Sophia Museum website and Wikipedia.)