Good for: admiring architecture, islamic architecture, mosaics, Tranquility, Religious interest
Not good for: church, mosque
Lonely Planet review for Aya Sofya
Sophia in Latin, Haghia Sofia in Greek and the Church of the Divine Wisdom in English, this extraordinary building is İstanbul's most famous monument.
Emperor Justinian had the Aya Sofya built as part of his effort to restore the greatness of the Roman Empire. It was completed in 537 and reigned as the greatest church in Christendom until the Conquest in 1453. Mehmet the Conqueror had it converted into a mosque and so it remained until 1935, when Atatürk proclaimed it a museum.
On entering his great creation for the first time almost 1500 years ago, 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 and seeing the magnificent domed ceiling soaring heavenward, it is easy to excuse his self-congratulatory tone.
As you walk into the inner narthex, look up to see a brilliant mosaic of Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the third and largest door (the Imperial Door). Once through this door the magnificent main dome soars above you. Supported by 40 decorated ribs, it was constructed of special hollow bricks made in Rhodes from a unique light, porous clay; these rest on huge pillars concealed in the interior walls, which creates an impression that the dome hovers unsupported.
The curious elevated kiosk screened from public view is the Sultan's loge. Ahmet III (r 1703–30) had it built so he could come in, pray and leave again unseen, thus preserving the imperial mystique. The ornate library, on the west wall, 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 putting one's finger in the hole can lead to ailments being healed if the finger emerges moist.
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
From the floor of Aya Sofya, 9th-century mosaic portraits of St Ignatius the Younger (c 800), St John Chrysostom (c 400) and St Ignatius Theodorus of Antioch are visible high up at the base of the northern tympanum (semicircle) beneath the dome. A seraph (winged biblical angel) is just to their east. Next to the three saints, but seen only from the upstairs east gallery, is a portrait of Emperor Alexandros. In the apse is a wonderful mosaic of the Madonna and Child; a nearby mosaic depicts the archangel Gabriel.
The upstairs galleries house the most impressive of Aya Sofya's mosaics and mustn't be missed. They can be reached via a switchback ramp at the northern end of the inner narthex. The magnificent Deesis Mosaic (The Last Judgement) in the south gallery dates from the early 14th century. Christ is at the centre, with the Virgin Mary on the left and John the Baptist on the right.
At the apse end of the southern gallery is the famous mosaic portrait of Empress Zoe (r 1028–50), who had three husbands and changed this mosaic portrait with each one. The portrait of the third Mr Zoe, Constantine IX Monomachus, survives because he outlived the empress.
To the right of Zoe and Constantine is another mosaic depicting characters with less-saucy histories: in this scene Mary holds the Christ child, centre, with Emperor John (Johannes) Comnenus II (the Good) to the left and Empress Eirene (known for her charitable works) to the right. Their son Alexius, who died soon after this portrait was made, is depicted next to Eirene.
As you leave the museum from the narthex, make sure you turn and look up above the door to see one of the church's finest late-10th-century mosaics. This shows Constantine the Great, on the right, offering Mary, who holds the Christ child, the city of Constantinople; Emperor Justinian, on the left, is offering her Aya Sofya.
On the opposite side of Aya Sofya Meydanı are the Baths of Lady Hürrem (Haseki Hürrem Hamamı), built as Aya Sofya's hamam from 1556 to 1557. Designed by Sinan, the hamam was commissioned by Süleyman the Magnificent in the name of his wife Hürrem Sultan, known to history as Roxelana.