About of Ayasofya

Called Hagia Sofia in Greek, Sancta Sophia in Latin and the Church of the Divine Wisdom in English, Istanbul's most famous monument has long and fascinating history. Built by Emperor Justinian, it was constructed on the site of Byzantium's acropolis, which had also been the site of two earlier Aya Sofyas.

The first of these was a basilica with a timber roof completed in 360 by Constantine's son and successor, Constantinius, and was burned down in a riot in 404; and the second was a building commissioned by Theodosius II in 415 and destroyed in the Nika riots of 532. Justinian's church, which dwarfed all other buildings in the city, was completed in 537 and reigned as the greatest church in Christendom until the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when Mehmet the Conqueror took possession of it for Islam and immediately converted it into a mosque. As significant to Muslims as it is to Christians, it was proclaimed a museum by Atatürk in 1934. Ongoing restoration work (partly Unesco funded) means that the interior is filled with scaffolding, but not even this can detract from the experience of visiting one of the world's truly great buildings. On entering his great creation for the first time, Justinian exclaimed, 'Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon! I have outdone you!' Entering the building today, it is easy to excuse his self-congratulatory tone. The exterior may be somewhat squat and unattractive but the interior, with its magnificent domed ceiling soaring heavenward, is so sublimely beautiful that many seeing it for the first time are quite literally stunned into silence. The original achievement of Aya Sofya's architects Anthemeus of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, who worked without the benefits of today's technology and materials, remains unequalled. The Byzantines gasped in amazement at the sense of air and space in the nave and the 30 million gold mosaic tiles (tesserae) that covered the dome's interior. Most of all, they marvelled at the apparent lack of support for the enormous dome. How was it possible, they asked? In fact, the original dome lasted only two decades before an earthquake brought it down in 559. It was rebuilt to a slightly less ambitious design, with a smaller base and steeper sides, and the basilica was reopened in 563. Over subsequent centuries it was necessary for succeeding Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans to rebuild the dome several times, to add buttresses and other supports and to steady the foundations. The dome, which is 30m in diameter, is supported by 40 massive ribs constructed of special hollow bricks made in Rhodes from a unique light and porous clay, resting on four huge pillars concealed in the interior walls. The great Ottoman architect Sinan, who spent his entire professional life trying to design a mosque to match the magnificence and beauty of Aya Sofya, used the same trick of concealing pillars when designing the Süleymaniye Camii almost 1000 years later. To truly appreciate what a difference the concealment makes, we suggest that you compare Aya Sofya's pillar-free central space with that of the nearby Blue Mosque, which features four huge freestanding pillars. You'll find that Aya Sofya shines in comparison.

In Justinian's time, a street led uphill from the west straight to the main door. Today the ticket kiosk is at the southwest side. Past the security check you'll see the sunken ruins of a Theodosian church (404-15) and the low original steps. Entering through the main entrance, all visitors are immediately struck by the ethereal beauty of the interior - this is in part due to the innumerable windows with their jewel-like stained glass. It is these windows, with the many arcades, that give the building its famous 'transparency'. Making your way through the outer narthex, you'll walk through the inner narthex and then into the main space. Far ahead of you, in the apse at the other side of the building, is a semidome glowing with a gold mosaic portrait of the Madonna and Child. Above this is another semidome, and above that is the famous, gigantic main dome of the church, which seems to be held up by nothing.
During its almost 1000 years as a church, only imperial processions were permitted to enter through the central, imperial door. You can still notice the depressions in the stone by each door just inside the threshold where imperial guards stood. Also note the matched marble panels in the walls and the breccia (a type of rock made up of angular fragments) columns. The chandeliers hanging low above the floor are Ottoman additions. Previously, rows of glass oil lamps lined the balustrades of the gallery and the walkway at the base of the dome. Imagine them all lit to celebrate some great state occasion, with the smell of incense and the chants of the Orthodox (and later the Latin) liturgy reverberating through the huge interior space. The Byzantine emperor was crowned while seated in a throne placed within the omphalion, the square of inlaid marble in the main floor. The nearby raised platform was added by Sultan Murat III (r 1574-95), as were the large alabaster urns so that worshippers could perform their ritual ablutions before prayer. During the Ottoman period the mimber (pulpit) and the mihrab (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca) were also added. The large 19th-century medallions inscribed with gilt Arabic letters are the work of master calligrapher Mustafa İzzet Efendi, and give the names of God (Allah), Mohammed and the early caliphs Ali and Abu Bakr. Though impressive works of art in their own right, they seem out of place here and unfortunately detract from the purity of the building's interior form. The curious elevated kiosk screened from public view is the imperial loge (hünkar mahfili). Sultan Abdül Mecit (r 1839-61) had it built in 1848 so he could come, pray and go unseen, preserving the imperial mystique. The ornate library behind the omphalion was built by Sultan Mahmut I in 1739. In the side aisle to the northeast of the imperial door is the weeping column, with a worn copper facing pierced by a hole. Legend has it that the pillar is that of St Gregory the Miracle Worker and that putting one's finger in the hole can lead to ailments being healed if the finger emerges moist.

Upstairs in the floor of the south gallery near the Deesis Mosaic you will see the tomb of Enrico Dandolo (c 1108-1205). Dandolo, who became doge of Venice in 1192, came from the prominent Venetian family that supplied Venice with four doges, numerous admirals and a colonial empire. During the Fourth Crusade (1203-04), he diverted the Crusader armies from their goal of an assault on the infidels to an assault on the friendly but rival Christian city of Constantinople. Aya Sofya was ransacked during the assault, with the altar being destroyed. Venice got the better part of the rich spoils from the sacking of the city, as well as numerous Byzantine territories. Dandolo ruled three-eighths of conquered Constantinople, including Sancta Sophia, until his death in 1205, when he was buried here. Tradition tells us that Dandolo's tomb was broken open after the Conquest of the city in 1453, and his bones thrown to the dogs. Also upstairs (this time in the western gallery) is a large circle of green marble marking the spot where the throne of the empress once stood. As you exit the building, the fountain (şadırvan) to the right was for ablutions. To your left is the church's baptistry, converted after the Conquest to a tomb for sultans Mustafa and Ibrahim (the Crazy). These are not open to the public. Other tombs are clustered behind it, including those of Murat III, Selim 'the Sot' II (designed by Sinan and featuring gorgeous İznik tiles) and Mehmet III. Selim's tomb is particularly poignant as it houses the graves of five of his sons, murdered on the same night in December 1574 to ensure the peaceful succession of the oldest, Murat III. It also houses the graves of 19 of Murat's sons, murdered in January 1595 to ensure Mehmet III's succession. They were the last of the royal princes to be murdered - after this, the younger brothers of succeeding sultans were confined to the kafes (cage) in Topkapı instead. To the southeast of the building a wall hides excavations on a section of the Great Byzantine Palace . To the left of the entrance is a small Ottoman primary school built by Mahmut I in 1740. Aya Sofya's first minaret was added by Mehmet the Conqueror (r 1451-81). Sinan designed the others for sultans Beyazıt II (r 1481-1512) and Selim II (r 1566-74).