Istanbul, Hagia Sophia

(continuer en français) – Published: April 30, 2022

The history of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is fascinating and reflects the upheavals in societies. Just as earthquakes can radically transform a landscape, historical events significantly change ways of life.

Hagia Sophia has had several lives, reflecting the changes that have taken place in a particular place over time. Certainly, as Istanbul is at the point of contact between Europe and the Orient, the chances of change are greater than elsewhere, depending on whether one side or the other gains the upper hand.

532 – Construction by Emperor Justinian

The giant Roman Empire split in two, with Rome and Constantinople as two collaborating or disputing capitals until the fall of Rome in 476. The Eastern Empire ensured continuity with Antiquity while perfecting knowledge and techniques.

Thus in 532, Hagia Sophia Basilica was built to become the largest church of the time, and would remain so for a thousand years. It is dedicated to Sophia, the divine wisdom. Breaking with the Pope, the Orthodox cult flourished there.

1204 – The Catholic Crusade

The Fourth Crusade aimed to drive the Muslims out of the holy places of the Middle East, but it turned to Constantinople for funding. This led to the capture of the city, the overthrow of the dynasty and for a few decades Catholic worship was established in Hagia Sophia before the return of Orthodox worship.

1453 – The Ottomans take Constantinople

When the Ottomans conquered the city, the condition of the basilica had deteriorated following several earthquakes and poor maintenance at the end of a period of economic and political decline. The Ottomans repaired and consolidated, added minarets and transformed Hagia Sophia into a mosque, a mihrab was installed on the Mecca side to replace an altar.

1932 – Hagia Sophia becomes a museum

This is one of Mustafa Atatürk’s decisions to break with the empire’s past based on Islam, he established a republic that wanted to be secular. Hagia Sophia is no longer a place of worship but is open to all to admire the works left by 14 centuries of history.

Every year, millions of visitors flocked to see the interior of this ancient monument and to walk freely through its galleries. As one of the most famous monuments, Hagia Sophia certainly contributed to making Istanbul a city that receives many tourists.

2020 – Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque again

The current Turkish political power, eager to distance itself from Western countries, has decided to increase the role of Islam in public life. One of the measures has been to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Visits are still possible but the schedule is interrupted by prayers. Some parts of the monument are no longer accessible as they are reserved for the faithful, some of the Christian decoration is hidden, and finally, clothing must respect the imperatives of Islam, requiring, for example, the removal of shoes.

The exterior architecture

The history of Hagia Sophia also includes a long series of earthquakes, and on several occasions reinforcements were added to support the building. This spoils the aesthetic lines a bit but avoids the worst.

The interior architecture

The entire space is organised around the large volume created by the dome, enlarged by large apses on two sides, with a gallery running around it behind a row of columns. As you enter the building under the dome, your eyes are drawn upwards before you can appreciate the depth of the room.


Visitors enter the galleries on the first floor via ramps built into the thickness of the walls. The floor is irregular to give grip, the stones appear polished by millions of passages. On the first floor, there is a large gallery on all four sides that runs under the painted vaults.

The decoration

Although today the attributes of the Muslim cult dominate the interior decoration, the traces of the previous uses are preserved and not destroyed as in the past. In a bright room, the Koranic library seems an oasis of serenity, while outside, the fountain of Ahmed III awaits the faithful for ritual ablutions.

An international attraction

Around Hagia Sophia, the crowds of visitors attract small businesses that grab a few pennies. This adds local colour to visiting a monument that is a strong motivation to make the trip to Istanbul.

Although Hagia Sophia has been recognised as a World Heritage Site, UNESCO has expressed concern over the latest developments regarding the status of the basilica. The potential for Hagia Sophia to become a point of convergence of different civilisations and eras remains intact, but access to it must be facilitated for all without discrimination.

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  1. An excellent overview of this fascinating building. Well done on handling the somewhat complicated history and, as ever, the photography is excellent. Particularly how delighted the old man knitting seems to be at being caught in your lens. When we visited Istanbul a few years back so many of its most iconic buildings were shut for renovation. But at least we got to see Sophia, thanks for taking me back.

    Liked by 1 person

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