What is this enormous architectural marvel in Istanbul, is it a church, a mosque or a museum? Over centuries the famous building ‘Hagia Sophia’ went from being an orthodox Christian church to a mosque, a museum, and now it has been turned back into a mosque again. What was built as a Christian church in the 6th century CE is today a mosque. So many changes have happened over time that the monument reflects different religions and cultures. The four minarets shooting up the sky and its blue dome is so beautiful that it has become the model for many other creations. Today this Byzantine structure remains the main feature of the Istanbul skyline and one of the world’s greatest buildings.

What Is Hagia Sophia And What Is The History Behind It

where is hagia sophia located
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was initially a Church but today it is a Mosque.

The incredible story of Hagia Sophia Istanbul started way back in 326 AD when Istanbul was known as Constantinople which was the capital of the medieval Byzantine Empire. This is one of the few complexes in the world where two very different religions, Islam and Christianity intertwined at once. Initially a church was built on this site and during AD 532 and 537 the church was rebuilt on a grander scale by Emperor Justinian. This monumental structure was nothing short of an engineering marvel at the time. For almost 1000 years it remained the largest cathedral in the world.

The next significant change happened in 1453 when Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed of the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople and renamed the city as Istanbul. It is during this time the four Islamic minarets were added to Hagia Sophia and renovated into a mosque. As part of the renovation, many of the original Orthodox-themed mosaics were covered with Islamic calligraphy. The mosaic on the main dome which had the image of Christ was also covered by gold calligraphy. 

Subsequently the well preserved building was turned into a secular museum by Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey in 1935. In 2013 some Islamic religious leaders put forward a suggestion to have the Hagia Sophia once again opened as a mosque and finally in 2020 it was reclassified as a mosque. With a mix of two very different cultures, this great monument has become one of the most exquisite examples of art and architecture. Today Hagia Sophia is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of the great historical value it carries. 

Hagia Sophia’s Architecture And Unique Design

hagia sophia is a church or mosque
Sunset views of Hagia Sophia in istanbul, Turkey.

It’s believed that this remarkable structure took 360 hundredweight of gold and 10,000 workmen to complete it. The building which is 269 feet in length and 240 feet in width was built in a grand Christian basilica style using Byzantine architecture. Emperor Justinian asked all provinces under his rule to send architectural pieces for use in the construction of the grand basilica that represented all of the Byzantine Empire. 

The central space is crowned by a magnificent huge dome that rises 180 feet above the ground. It has one semi-dome on the west side and another semi-dome on the east side. The Hagia Sophia dome is supported by four pendentives, which was an architectural innovation at that time. The walls were originally lined with intricate Byzantine mosaics that portrayed well known scenes from the Christian Gospels. The marble used for the floor and ceiling was produced in Anatolia and bricks for the walls and parts of the floor came from North Africa. The interior of Hagia Sophia contains three aisles separated by columns and enormous marble slabs that have been designed in such a way as to give an impression that the roof is floating on air. Its 104 columns were made of marble that was imported from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and Egypt. 

The attractiveness of the structure cannot be attributed to a single culture. What makes it unique and special is the coexistence of two different religions and the use of two different architectural styles. Fortunately for us Hagia Sophia has withstood the test of time and is here for us to experience this immeasurable beauty.

Suggested Reads: My Experience With The Intriguing Land Of Istanbul

Highlights Of Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is famous not just for its exterior but also for its interior. Here’s a list of top things to check out while inside the Mosque:

Virgin Mary Mosaic 

Incredible hagia sophia architecture
Mosaic of Virgin Mary and Infant Jesus Christ found in the old church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Constructed during Byzantine era.

Most of the mosaics used to decorate Hagia Sophia were made between the 10th and 12th century by the Byzantine craftsmen. Hence one can see a lot of images of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, kings and saints on the tiles. One such mosaic is the stunning 11th-century Virgin Mary and child mosaic with Byzantine Emperors Constantine to her right and Justinian on her left. 

Center Dome 

beautiful hagia sophia dome
The striking dome of Hagia Sophia.

The center dome which is the most striking element in the structure was made from 40 equally spaced ribs. Forty windows were built at the dome’s base to create the sensation that the dome actually floated. The light from the forty windows shining upon the gilded mosaics represents the realm of heaven and its glory. Putting a dome on a square base was something very unique during those times. 

Weeping Column

hagia sophia opening hours are between 8am to 6pm
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The weeping column also referred to as the ‘wishing column’ is believed to have therapeutic characteristics. The bronze plated column with a hole in the center is said to have been blessed by St. Gregory the Miracle Worker in 1200 when he first appeared at the column. Some claim that any illnesses can be cured by placing a finger in the magical hole. 

Emperor’s Door

who built the hagia sophia
Puerta Imperial o Puerta del Emperador, Santa Sofía o Mezquita Hagia Sofía, Estambul, Turquía

The Emperor Door, which dates back to the 6th century is believed to have been constructed using the woods from Noah’s Ark. This magnificent door which was used only by the Emperor served as a connection between the internal narthex area and the main area. 

Devil’s Prison

hagia sophia timings
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It’s believed that a devil is imprisoned in the marble stone in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. After conquering Istanbul the Sultan wanted to convert the Cathedral into a Mosque. But a demon inside opposed Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque. Akşemsettin who was in charge of the renovation pleaded with God and his request was approved and God locked the Demon inside.

Talisman Doors

hagia sophia church had towering doors.
6th century door separating the Emperor’s private area from the rest of the church members.

There are 361 doors in Hagia Sophia of which 101 are larger than the others and are referred to as talismans. Every time the doors are counted, there is always an additional door. Unbelievable right!

Also Read: The Most Beautiful Mosques In The World

Final Thoughts

This massive cathedral-turned-mosque is undeniably a must-see attraction in Istanbul. So if you are planning on a visit to this part of the world, use information and recommendations from this article to get the most of your Istanbul tour. 


What are 5 facts about Hagia Sophia?

It was built using columns from one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (Temple of Artemis at Ephesus). 
It’s believed that one of the impressive 107 columns has healing powers.
Due to its sprawling size, the complex was first named as ‘The Great Church.’
Many artworks of many varieties were plastered over, destroyed, or removed during the iconoclasm period.
Hagia Sophia was the 3rd construction at the spot on which it sits now. The first and the second construction were also churches.

Do I need a tour guide for Hagia Sophia?

As the Hagia Sophia museum does not share much information it’s advisable to take a guided tour to learn more about the history and details of its architecture. 

Can you enter Hagia Sophia for free?

There is no need to purchase tickets to Hagia Sophia as entry to the Mosque is free. Only time when you are not allowed to enter is 30 minutes prior to prayer times here.

What is the dress code for Hagia Sophia?

All visitors should wear comfortable loose fitting clothing that covers your shoulders, arms, and legs. It is mandatory for all female visitors to wear a headscarf to gain entry and other dress codes for Mosques. 


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