The only time stepping inside a building has ever caused my jaw to literally drop in awe was the first time I walked through the doors of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
There are many spectacular buildings in the world, but this Byzantine structure’s blend of sheer size, regal beauty and intricate detail has a unique impact.
My first interior view of the Hagia Sophia (or, Aya Sofya as it is written in Turkish) is of the statuesque entrance hall, whose ornate golden walls and towering arched ceilings are covered entirely with geometric-patterned mosaics.
Inside the hall, informative plaques relate the dramatic history of the Hagia Sophia.
Originally built as a Catholic church in the 6th century AD under orders of Justinian the Great, it fell into Muslim control in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Instanbul (then Constantinople).
Sultan Mehmet II promptly ordered the Byzantine cathedral to be converted into a mosque. The glittering mosaics on the interior walls depicting Christ, Mary, seraphims and the twelve apostles were covered and overlaid with Muslim symbols and writings of the Koran. Four minarets were added to the exterior.
Centuries later, after Turkey became a secular state, Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ordered in 1934 that the mosque be converted into a museum. The project of uncovering the original Christian mosaics is still underway.
An expansive, bronze-framed doorway leads from the entrance into the main hall of the Hagia Sophia, the sight of which causes my jaw to drop for a second time, more from its size than anything else.
The vast domed interior is dimly lit with light that pours from windows overhead, illuminating the walls, which are covered with a fascinating mix of peeling paint, Christian mosaics and bold Muslim symbols. A long stone corridor leads to the upper level of the mosque, where the freshly-uncovered mosaics can be seen up close.
Walking distance from the Hagia Sophia, also in Sultanahmet Square, are many other sites that can’t be missed, including Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, and a plethora of carpet shops, bazaars and coffee shops.
Take a taxi to Taksim Square for a glimpse of modern Istanbul: a bustling, brightly lit, seemingly endless stretch of shops, bars, clubs and restaurants.
When planning a trip to Turkey, be sure to leave several days at minimum for Istanbul, because there’s a lot to see in this city.
* Photos courtesy of Sonya Stoa