Hagia Sophia Museum is Istanbul’s Most Important Place

Hagia Sophia Museum, one of the most important stops of the historical peninsula, fascinates with its architecture, both Byzantine and Ottoman period features, historical richness and mosaics. Hagia Sophia, which is the most popular tourist spot by local and foreign tourists in Turkey, is the sacred heritage of Istanbul with its splendor.

History and features of Hagia Sophia

Before moving on to information about the Hagia Sophia Museum, let’s learn what Hagia Sophia means. Hagia Sophia, which means the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), is actually a Byzantine church. The state called Byzantium was a part of the Roman Empire that was separated from the east. This state converted to Christianity and became Orthodox. In the eyes of everyone in the Eastern Roman Empire, whose center was Constantinople (Istanbul), Hagia Sophia was considered a place of great spiritual value. Since the building was not centrally planned, smaller domes were built to reduce the pressure of the dome’s weight on the sides.

One of the buildings that is very similar to Hagia Sophia in structure and appearance is the Pantheon Temple in Rome, Italy. Just as Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror, the Pantheon, built by Emperor Hadrian for the gods, was converted into a church.

Hagia Sophia has been subjected to many fires in history. The Hagia Sophia Church, completed by Emperor Constantine in 360, was destroyed in a fire that broke out as a result of a riot in 404 due to the exile of Istanbul Patriarch Ioannes. Emperor Theodosios II built the second church in 415. In 532, the Nika (Victory) Revolt, the most violent uprising the city had ever seen, broke out as a group of people opposed the empire led by Justinian. Tens of thousands of people were killed and many places were burned and destroyed. Hagia Sophia Church was also affected by this violence.

Hagia Sophia Museum from Sultanahmet Square
Hagia Sophia Museum from Sultanahmet Square
Ayasofya Muzesi Fatih Gorulecek Yerler

Emperor Justinian commissioned two successful architects of the period, Isodoros from Miletus and Anthemios from Traleis, and the construction of the third church, which they started in 532, was completed in 5 years and opened for worship. Today, the Hagia Sophia, which we can see from Sultanahmet Square, is the work of Emperor Justinionus. Justinionus wanted Hagia Sophia to be one of the most magnificent buildings. For this reason, he brought marbles from various parts of Anatolia and the world and architectural pieces from ancient cities such as Aspendos, Ephesus and Tarsus. There were 104 columns in total in Hagia Sophia, 40 in the lower gallery and 64 in the upper gallery. Hagia Sophia is 100 meters long and 69.50 meters wide. The height of the dome from the ground is 55.60 meters. The diameter of the dome is not perfectly round. 31.87 x 30.86 meters, the dome is slightly elliptical in shape, resulting in an enormous structure.

The main source of all the splendor of the building is the dome of Hagia Sophia.
The main source of all the splendor of the building is the dome of Hagia Sophia.
One of the important doors in Hagia Sophia is the Emperor's Gate. During the Byzantine period, only the emperor could pass through this gate.
One of the important doors in Hagia Sophia is the Emperor's Gate. During the Byzantine period, only the emperor could pass through this gate.

What to see at the Hagia Sophia Museum

The sweating column: Inside the museum, on one of the columns on the left, there is a column covered with a bronze plate with a carved center. According to legend, Emperor Justinianos, while walking around here with a severe headache, leaned his head against it and his headache went away. For this reason, the hole, which is considered sacred among the people and has healing properties, has become a spot where many people visit for healing. People put their thumbs into the hole in the pillar and make a wish by turning it clockwise one full turn. There are some who believe that Mary’s tears are the cause of this wetness. Scientists, of course, have a different approach. The water under Hagia Sophia is absorbed due to the porous structure of the column and releases the water out of the bronze plate.

Marble cubes: The large jars in the Hagia Sophia Museum, which belong to the Hellenistic Period, were brought to Hagia Sophia from Pergamon during the reign of Sultan Murad III. Sherbet was distributed on special occasions through 2 cubes made of solid marble that could hold 1250 liters of liquid. On other days, water could be drunk from the faucets at the bottom of the cubes containing water.

Ayasofya Muzesi Mermer Kupler
Ayasofya Omphalion

Omphalion: Since Hagia Sophia was a church belonging to the Empire, it was also the place where the coronation ceremonies of the Emperors were held. The coronation ceremonies were held on the floor in the main space, called the omphalion, which was made of colored round stones and intertwined patterns.

Elements of the mosque: When Mehmet the Conqueror conquered Istanbul in 1453, he converted the Hagia Sophia Church into a mosque. The minarets added by Sinan the Architect, which also served as supporting pillars, helped to strengthen the structure. After the 16th century, with the addition of the pulpit, mihrab, hünkar mahfili, muezzin mahfili and sermon pulpit, Hagia Sophia reached a complete mosque structure at that time. The 60-meter high minarets added are thought to have been built by Mimar Sinan because of their resemblance to the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.

Large plaques: Sultan Abdülmecit gave the mosque a different look with a total of 8 large plaques with a diameter of 7.5 meters, which he had added to the inward-facing walls of the upper floor inside the Hagia Sophia Mosque. These plates, the works of the calligrapher Mustafa İzzet Efendi, are written in gold gilding on a green background made of hemp. The names of Allah, Prophet Muhammad, the four caliphs (Prophet Abu Bakr, Prophet Umar, Prophet Osman, Prophet Ali), Prophet Muhammad’s grandsons Prophet Hasan and Prophet Hussein are written on the large calligraphy plates. The inscription in the center of the dome is also by Mustafa İzzet Efendi, and the 35th verse of Surah Nur is written here.

Ayasofya Muzesi Buyuk Levhalar
Ayasofya Muzesi Buyuk Levha Yazilar

Sultan Mahmud I library: Built in 1739 during the reign of Sultan Mahmud I, the library consists of a reading room, a treasury where books are kept and an intermediate corridor connecting the two. Today, there are no books in the library in case of theft. The tiles in the library are made in Iznik, Kütahya and Tekfur workshops between the 16th and 18th centuries. Especially in the corridor of the library, we see beautiful floral motifs from roses to carnations, tulips to cypresses.

Ayasofya Muzesi Cami Unsurlari
Ayasofya Muzesi Sultan Mahmut Kutuphanesi

Viking inscription: On the second floor of Hagia Sophia, there is a short inscription left by the Vikings, known for their warrior skills. The inscription, which means “Halvdan was here” addressed to the Viking commander, has survived until today. This is also a must-see, where else can we see such an original Viking inscription?

Sultan Abdülmecit’s monogram: Sultan Abdülmecit wanted his own face to be painted on the gilded mosaics that fell off during the renovation of Hagia Sophia, but this could not be done because it was forbidden by Islam. The Fossati brothers wanted to make a gesture to the Sultan and had the Italian master Lanzoni paint Sultan Abdülmecit’s own monogram. Until that day, no sultan’s tughra in history had ever been made of mosaic. Sultan Abdülmecid’s tughra on the wall to the right of the main entrance door is very high quality and valuable. Although Abdülmecid wanted it very much, it could not be hung in Hagia Sophia. 170 years later, Prof. Dr. Semavi Eyice learned from the memoirs of Architect Fossati that the monogram was in the warehouse of Topkapı Palace and hung it on the wall of Hagia Sophia at the end.

Mosaic artifacts in the Hagia Sophia Museum

Hagia Sophia Museum contains mosaic works of high quality. From 1453 until 1849, the mosaics were hidden because the depiction of faces was forbidden by Islam, and with the decision to restore the Hagia Sophia given by Sultan Abdülmecit, the mosaics were unearthed again by Fossati. Then of course it was closed again. It was reopened during Atatürk’s reign. You have to go upstairs to see the mosaics. The upper floor was previously reserved for women. The stone ramp used to go up to this floor was prepared so that the Empress could be carried up without being shaken. The Empress would watch the ceremonies and celebrations from the Empress box with her entourage.

Ayasofya Muzesi Ikinci Kat Koridoru
Ayasofya Muzesi Sultanahmet Gezilecek Yerler

Hagia Sophia mosaics are generally related to Christianity. In addition to the mosaics of Jesus Christ and Mary, the Zoe Mosaic with important characters such as Leon VI and Emperor Justinianos from the Eastern Roman Emperors, the Patriarch Mosaics in the Tympanon, angel depictions, Deisis Composition mosaics are must-see mosaics.

Why and how did the Hagia Sophia Museum become a museum?

When Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul in 1453, he turned Hagia Sophia, one of the most magnificent buildings of the period, into a mosque and opened it for worship. Because there were no mosques in Istanbul at that time and a mosque was needed for worship. In the 1930s, the rediscovery of Byzantine mosaics and the efforts to uncover these mosaics brought with it various problems, such as the religious objection of having paintings in a mosque in Islam. Atatürk turned Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935 because it has an important place in both Christianity and Islam, he considered it a common heritage of humanity and wanted everyone to see this beauty.

The Hagia Sophia Museum contains artifacts worth talking about outside as well as inside. One of them is the area at the entrance of the museum that bears the traces of the previous Hagia Sophia. You can see the artifacts of the Hagia Sophia before this Hagia Sophia in the museum garden. Another structure built by Sultan Mahmud I in 1740 is the fountain of Hagia Sophia. It is one of the leading fountains in Istanbul and was built for men to meet their ablution needs.

Ayasofya Muzesi Onceki Ayasofya
Ayasofya Muzesi Mahmud Sadirvani

Conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque

On July 24, 2020, various arrangements were made for the opening of the Hagia Sophia Mosque for worship. The historical icons in Hagia Sophia are covered with a curtain system and the floor is carpeted and made ready for worship.

What are the entrance fee and visiting hours of Hagia Sophia Museum?

Hagia Sophia is one of the most expensive museums in Turkey. However, get a Müzekart before you enter, because it is valid and unlimited. You can visit the Hagia Sophia Museum every day of the week, including Mondays, between 09:00 – 17:00 during the winter season and between 09:00 – 19:00 during the summer season.

There have been endless restoration works inside Hagia Sophia for a long time. As well as the iron bars up to the ceiling in the main area, the walls covering the restored areas on the floors give a very bad view. Last time I was there, half of the upper floor and most of the lower floor were closed. Nevertheless, since some of it can still be seen, I recommend you to add it to your list of places to visit and see in Istanbul.

Where is Hagia Sophia Museum and how to get there?

The most ideal way to reach Hagia Sophia Museum, one of the most important buildings in Istanbul, is by tram. Get off at the Sultanahmet stop with the T1 numbered tram on the Bağcılar Kabataş line. After getting off, you can reach the museum with a 5-minute walk.