Visiting The Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey
MORE THAN A MILLENNIUM DOME | Darrin Henry
The Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, Turkey, is a treasure trove of photographic possibilities; a stunning architectural fantasy of a building filled with light and shadow gliding softly across the ancient marble surfaces. In a city bursting with incredible buildings, this was my favourite. It was my birthday on the day we chose to visit which made it all the more special.
Sharon and I were spoilt with a brilliant view of the Hagia Sophia from our hotel room; the bulbous domes and rocket shaped minarets stirred our imagination and curiosity every day of our stay, especially when the haunting wail of the Muslim call to prayer crackled from the loudspeakers and echoed across the rooftops.
Museum with the Big Buttresses
Up close to the building, on the day of our visit, the first thing I noticed was the intricate detail that is invisible from a distance; every last piece of the Hagia Sophia museum construction is a work of art it seems. Nowhere did the builders take the simple or easy option.
Before we even made it through the entrance gate there were tour guides who approached us rather suddenly, offering their services. It all felt a bit too informal, unprofessional I guess, so we declined, however, other people later told us the guides are really good.
We bypassed the ticket counter queue by using the self-service kiosk nearby, then just walked through to the garden area after the obligatory bag search from security. Using the kiosk saved a good few minutes.
Entrance to the museum itself is under tall archways supported by no nonsense, big chunky walls. These are in fact buttresses, added to support the weight of the main dome which had caused the outer walls to buckle.
The Ancient History of the Hagia Sophia Museum
The Hagia Sophia museum is a masterpiece of architecture and history that stretches back more than 1,000 years before Columbus ever set sail for America. That puts the significance of the building into perspective for me.
Originally built by the East Roman Empire as a church in 360AD, the Hagia Sophia retained this use for nearly 1,000 years. It was then converted and used as a mosque for nearly 500 years. Finally in 1935 it was turned into a museum which is what we know today.
The Hagia Sophia that we entered was in fact the third construction on the same spot. The first two burned down and were demolished following public riots in 404AD and 532AD. Third time lucky, the last construction completed in 537AD remains, albeit with repairs and renovations over the centuries. But essentially, the Hagia Sophia is one and half thousand years old, a grand building that still takes the breath away after all this time.
Underneath our feet, hidden far below, was the Basilica Cistern built in 532AD, a part of the Hagia Sophia and another incredible piece of engineering that has stood the test of time.
…But First, Let Me Take A Selfie – Too!
Once inside the museum we found ourselves craning our necks to gaze upward into the ginormous spaces above us.
The walls are all decorated with either marble or beautiful mosaics. White, pink, yellow and green marble.
Way above, 55.6m above, to be exact, the signature feature of the Hagia Sophia, the main dome, stunning in colours of gold and blue, propped up by a circle of 40 little windows that help to illuminate the decorations with natural light.
It was quite funny watching tourists trying to setup selfies directly below the dome – but then we got suckered in and had to try it for ourselves as well! I’m sure other tourists were then having a smile at us.
Did You Know Buildings Have Wrinkles?
Interestingly, the Hagia Sophia is built over a fault line and is therefore prone to damage from earthquakes. Down the years the dome especially has suffered partial collapses from tremors beneath the earth’s surface and has had to be repaired and rebuilt.
Under our feet I couldn’t help but notice the large ancient marble flagstones, worn smooth with gentle curves from hundreds of years of footsteps. Cracks spidered out across the shiny surface like veins and wrinkles on an old person’s skin. I guess this was the skin of Hagia Sophia, the senior citizen of the world’s buildings showing her age.
Suspended around the main hall are eight big circular panels with calligraphic writings. These date back to 1849, installed during a period of renovation. They measure 7.5m in diameter.
Hagia Sophia, Best Building in Istanbul
Through the archways we wandered, discovering side chambers with tall window openings holding up black iron trellis bars. Up the spiralling staircases, peering over the balconies, posing for photos. Every modern picture taking device was on show, from mobile phones to big DSLR cameras as visitors all tried to capture a worthy memory. Columns, archways, marble, mosaics, bricks and cobblestones. Light and shadow. One and half thousand years of history, and then some! How could we not be impressed?
We spent over three hours touring the Hagia Sophia museum, including a break for lunch at the garden cafe outside. It’s a breath-taking building, even more so when you try to wrap your head around just how old it is. An unforgettable birthday treat, for sure.