I finally went to the crowning glory of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia. You can see this majestic behemoth of a beauty quite literally from anywhere in the city of Istanbul, sice it sits on top of one of the hills of the city. The soaring minarets and gargantuan dome and semi domes overlook Istanbul like a mother raising her hands heavenwards in a protective gesture.
And she is rightfully the mother of Istanbul. Built in 537 by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I over the ruins of an older church , It has seen city in its course of history, from Constantinople to Qistantiniyya to Istanbul. She also had seen herself dedicated to different sects and religions, from a Byzantine Cathedral, to Greek Orthodox, to Roman Catholic, to Islam and finally secularized in 1935 by the newly established Turkish Republic.
When you first approached the museum you will be astounded by how expansive the building is. Realizing that it is almost 1500 Years old makes it even more unbelievable. Knowing that this part of the world is quite prone to earthquakes makes the church-turned mosque-turned museum even more impressive. When you think about it, if there would be a particularly violent earthquake shook Istanbul at that time and then, God forbid it won’t ever happen, the minarets would fall over and crush everything in its vicinity.
There was a very very long queue going into the museum. Understandably, it is one of the most famous museum in Istanbul or even the most known museum of all Turkey, so everyone visiting the city would want to visit this incredible site. Thankfully with the new Museum pass I just purchased from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, I managed to bypass everyone and went directly to the security kiosk. After security check I went to the entrance of the museum. Before entering the site there was a coffee shop and lots of people were there enjoying the afternoon under the shade of the Hagia Sophia. On the grounds there were also remnants of the old church that was there. Carved marble cornices, broken pillars, stone lecterns and other tidbits were scattered upon the grounds, with fats stray cats happily strolling and lounging on the artifacts.
I did not waste my time in the coffee shops as one look at the prices immediately put me off. Instead I walked directly into the museum. Before entering the main hall, in the true style of Byzantine cathedrals, there was a forecourt or a corridor, or in this case called the Narthex. Here you can see several placards about the museums history throughout the ages as well as extracted elements from each era. There was also a very large stone sarcophagus lying in the corridor leading up to the gift shop which is on the right side of the Narthex, apparently it was of an Empress’s. You can also see 9th century mosaics on the top of the main doors depicting Jesus and the churches’ benefactors prostrating before Christ.
As you walked through the Imperial doors with the cross clearly torn away, and noticing the age old stone flooring now smooth because of the number of the visitors thoughout history, You cannot help but the crane your gaze upwards towards the high soaring dome. I know I did and I actually gasped in awe. The left side of the museum was barricaded due to the restoration works. A pity as that might be, it was no distraction to the majesty of this sacred space. I think this is how Justinan I felt when he first step foot in his church and proclaimed “Solomon, I have surpassed thee”. In the middle of the dome was a calligraphic medallion from the Ottoman times, citing the Nur chapter of the Qur’an. Indeed, when you walked into the space, light was in abundance – as if the whole building was a dedication to light and everything it brings. Indeed the name Hagia Sophia means the Holy Wisdom, and you can feel that as you are bathed in light the church-mosque afforded.
Going directly to the Apse, you pass by the Omphalion, the circular design in the floor where Byzantine emperors were crowned, a Muezzin Mahfili and Mimbar, both an Islamic ottoman addition, before stopping in front of the Mihrab and gazing before the mosaic of Virgin and Child up high above the apse. Underneath the Mimbar, you can see a curious Iznik tile depicting the Kaaba and Mecca.
Not being able to go to the right hand side from the Apse, I went to the left side corridor, where there were more Ottoman additions to the building, such as the gilded caged kiosk that is the Sultan Mahmud I Library, as well as old tall mobile wooden ladders for cleaning the church. Tall mighty columns with metal clasps hold the gallery in the left corridors. There was also a curious marble jar, although I couldn’t gather any more information about the jar that is large enough to fit a man in, as there were crowds around the placard. If you see on the ceiling you can see Byzantine era floral decorations over faded crosses, apparently a product of the iconoclastic era of the Byzantines.
I then made my way to the second floor from the Narthex via a very, very, VERY high ramp. The ramp was large and wide, and the floor was very slippery , again from the sheer number of visitors going up and down these ramps. The space was dark and cold, and dotted with small windows every now and then over the floors.
After what seems like an eternity in a cold damp area, you once again be bathed in the abundant light on the second floor. In the galleries of the second floor you can see more of the Byzantine remnants of the church such as the Deesis, a 13th century mosaic depicting Jesus flanked by his mother Mary and John the Baptist. Also you can see an older 11th Century mosaic depicting Jesus and Empress Zoe. An impressive marble doors called the Door of Heaven and Hell stood separating the wes t and south galleries. The grave of Enrico Dondolo, the Venetian Doge who died in 1205 was also here, although this carved site is relatively recent, done in the 19th century. The gallery was decorated with the same Byzantine decorations of geometric patterns and floral motifs over faded crosses, like the one you can see in the lower half of the museum.
I took a bit of time exploring every available nook and cranny of the museum, Although I truly believed that I did not explore enough of this place. After the visit it seemed that I missed one of the mosaics because it faced the exit of the museum. Perhaps next time, I will bring a tour guide with me so I can learn more of this place.
The first thing you will see upon entering the main hall. Glass chandeliers hung from the tall ceilings, Islamic calligraphy in medallions mingle with Christian iconography.
The main dome of the Hagia Sophia. Sorry for the overexposure, but this only shows you how the moque-church is so full of light. The calligraphy in the middle is from the Quran, The Nur Chapter. Underneath it is presumably a mosaic of Jesus, however uncovering it means dismantling and possibly destroying the calligraphy.
The Mihrab of the Hagia Sophia, an Ottoman addition. Note that it is slightly to the right – this is because the Qibla (Mecca) faces a slightly different direction from Jerusalem, which this building originally faces.
The Mimbar, another Ottoman addition. The colouring and the materials used for this Mimbar almost seemed like it was built originally for the mosque-church.
A mosaic of the Tughra of Sultan Abdul Mecid. This is displayed in the inner (I think( Narthex of the Hagia Sophia, along with other curious artifacts, including a sarcophagus of an empress.
The Library of Sultan Mahmut I. The gilded cage reflects the same opulence the Hunkar Mahfili (which was bariccaded when I visited) was given near the Mihrab of the Mosque. This library can be seen on the right hand side of the Hagi Sophia’s main hall as you enter.
An Iznik tile panel supposedly featuring an illustration of The Kaaba and Mecca…but why is it replaced with a floral motif pattern? This is found underneath the Mimbar, although I cannot approach it closely as it was off limits. Thank goodness for 30x Zoom camera.
The icon of The Virgin Mary cradling an infant Jesus juxtaposed with the absolutely massive calligraphy medallion bearing the name of Allah.
The writer, on the balcony overlooking the main hall. You can see the barricades on the left side.