The story of The Hagia Sofia


There are not many facts I remember from my university studies (major in religion).  But for some reason I did always remember this.
In the third century (AD) the Emperor Constantine declared that the Roman empire would now adopt this new fangled religion – Christianity – and that Constantinople would be the centre of this. To this effect he  built a huge new church – the Hagia Sofia which was the largest and the most important church in the Christian world..  A massive, multi domed, terracotta  monument to the new cult of Jesus, Mary and the one God. This was completed in 537 ad.

I think this struck me as so pragmatic, just deciding that a whole population would now have to believe on demand (not a new idea I know). It put a lot of things in perspective for me, the changeover from the traditional Roman ideas to the Christian, the settling of a whole new belief system in such a large area – 300 years after Jesus lived.  Fascinating.

But wait there is more.
The Christian church was established here, in the old Constantinople (I love that word!).  I imagine this process was not without many years of drama and conflict.  It is no easy task to convert a whole empire.

Things then went along relatively well until the Ottomans arrived  in 1453.  Mehmet ll was a 21 year old Sultan who led the Ottomans and after a seige of less than two months Constantinople fell to them.   Upon conquering the city  the new rulers set to changing the Hagia Sofia.  Minarets were errected, the Christian symbols and mosaics painted over and removed, all things Islam  introduced.  Within a very short space of time the grand church was operating as a Mosque.

The last part of the story is very recent, only 90 years ago.  The Ottoman empire had had a turbulent time and  been diminishing more each century.  By 1923 Ataturk, the founder of  the modern Turkey had set up a whole new social structure and banished much of the old order.  Turkey was now a secular state.

The great Hagia Sofia became the museum it is today.


The building is beautiful, huge and so intriging because of the turbulent history it is has been fundamentally a part of.


The paint the conquering Ottomans used actually preserved many of the early Christians paintings and mosiacs!  This one is  the Virgin Mary flanked by two Roman emperors – Constantine and Justinian.  I  guess this shows the high regard the emperors held themselves in, or their subjects did.


The building is huge, gargantutan with massive domed ceilings, like this one in the main part of Hagia Sofia (or Aya Soyfa)


There were a few of these paintings of  angels some still being partly covered.


A gorgeous Islamic looking mosaic tucked away in a little nook.



Here you can see some of the scaffolding set up and the height of the main dome.



We were all impressed with the massive wooden doors. Also the marble floors which were worn down after years of thousands of feet, ancient and modern walking over them.  This particularly made me feel connected to those who have come before.

IMG_1138 This is called the Deesis Mosiac and shows Jesus and John the Baptist . (Mary is on the left, unseen) with Jesus as the supreme ruler of the world. Dated from 1261.

The bottom is sadly deteriorated, but is still considered to be the finest one in The Hagia Sofia.


One of Istanbuls stray cats, Charlie is always interested in them and wanted to work out how it got in and was fed etc.



The view from the first gallery, pretty impressive and gives some idea of  the scale.

There are some interesting shadows of crosses, but overlaid with Islamic patterns  to be seen which really bring to life the layers of history here.

The dilemma for those restoring the Hagia Sofia is do you destroy the more recent Islamic art for the sake of seeing the older Christian work?

And so history is still being made here.


One response »

  1. Hi Jane. It’s so cool to see the kids at the very placed Nathan and i visited last year. I too was fascinated by the worn stone door step, and we met the cats. I love that you guys have spent enough time in one place that you’re getting to know the locals.

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