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. Of all the places to visit in Istanbul, a city bursting with incredible buildings, this was my favourite.
Even more special, it was my birthday on the day we chose to visit the place locals call, Ayasofya museum.
Sharon and I were spoilt with a brilliant view of the most famous of Istanbul landmarks from our hotel room. The bulbous domes and rocket shaped minarets stirred our imagination and curiosity to see the Hagia Sophia inside, 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
First time visitors might need to consult their Istanbul map to make sure get the right building. The Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are just 200m apart. Two amazing things to do in Istanbul very close together.
Through the Tom Hanks Inferno movie, Istanbul and its stunning ancient museum has received an injection of publicity, no doubt welcomed by Turkish tourism.
Up close to the Hagia Sophia, the first thing I noticed was the intricate detail that is not apparent from a distance; every last piece of the 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 queue at the gate, choosing to purchase our Hagia Sophia tickets at the self-service kiosk nearby, 40 Turkish Lira each, then just walked through to the garden area after the obligatory bag search from security. Using the kiosk saved a good few minutes. The Hagia Sophia opening hours in summer (15 April – 30 October) are from 9am – 7pm.
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 history that stretches back more than 1,000 years, even 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, it was called Megale Ekklesia (Big Church). It later became known as the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom). It retained this use as a church 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 somewhere far below, was the Basilica Cistern, another special Istanbul sightseeing gem. The ancient Cistern was 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 Hagia Sophia interior walls are all decorated with either marble or beautiful mosaics. White, pink, yellow and green marble.
Way above, 55.6m above, to be exact, is the signature feature, the Hagia Sophia 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.
The Hagia Sophia entrance fee of 40 TL was proving to be money well spent.
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, One Of The Best Places To Visit 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 our own Hagia Sophia images.
Every modern picture taking device was on show, from mobile phones to big DSLR cameras, as visitors all tried to capture a worthy memory. Selfie photography backdrops as majestic as Ayasofya are a rarity.
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, a real highlight on the Istanbul tourist map, even more so when you try to wrap your head around just how old it is. An unforgettable birthday treat, for sure, one of the best things to do in Istanbul.