Ayasofya, Istanbul

It was 3 degrees F this morning (-16 C), and I have pretty much given up on my dreams of an early spring. Since not much will be happening in the garden for a while, let’s cast our minds back to December 2009, when Judy and I and the boys took a trip to Turkey.

Danny had spent that fall studying at St. Petersburg University in Russia. For our Christmas trip, we thought we would take advantage of the fact that he was already in a far off land.

Entrance to Ayasofya.
Entrance to Ayasofya.


And in fact, his flight from St. Petersburg and ours from Chicago landed in Istanbul within a couple of hours of each other. Meeting at the airport, we all thought ourselves masters of international intrigue.

A view of Ayasofya's main dome.
A view of Ayasofya’s main dome.

So let’s start by looking at one of the places we saw on our first full day in Istanbul: Ayasofya, also called the Hagia Sofia. The name means “Holy Wisdom”.

Another view of the dome
Another view of the dome

Ayasofya was built as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral about 1,500 years ago, when Istanbul was Constantinople and capital of the Byzantine Empire.

A cross with the vertical parts removed. You can still see the shadow, though it is probably over 500 years old.
A cross with the vertical sections removed. You can still see the shadow, though it is probably over 500 years old.

It was converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Under the emphatically secular Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Ayasofya was transformed into a museum in the 1930s.

As a result of restoration efforts, Ayasofya displays art and architecture both Christian and Islamic, Byzantine and Ottoman.

View of the inside from the upper gallery.
View of the inside from the upper gallery.

From the outside the whole building gives a feeling of massiveness and solidity, like an enormous domed boulder. Inside, the space is cavernous, the windows mostly small, the light dim.

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A view of the upper gallery from the opposite wall.

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The capitals of the marble columns are intricately carved.

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Byzantine mosaics were destroyed or plastered over when the building was converted to a mosque. Conservators have been working on restoration for many years.

Scaffolding facilitates restoration of the ceiling.
Scaffolding facilitates restoration of the ceiling.


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The Islamic art, including patterned mosaics and Arabic calligraphy in gold, is also undergoing restoration.

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For security, the Sultan had a private screened loge to sit in.

Pulpit to the right, mehrab to the left.
Pulpit to the right, mehrab to the left.




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The minbar or pulpit for the Imam is very tall. The mihrab points towards Mecca and indicates the direction worshipers should face when praying.

Ayasofya seen from an adjoining park. The minarets were added by the Ottoman Turks.
Ayasofya seen from an adjoining park. The minarets were added by the Ottoman Turks.

Ayasofya was a fine introduction to the antiquity and the parade of empires past that seems to surround everyday life in Turkey.

42 Comments on “Ayasofya, Istanbul”

  1. I guess you and I are feeling the same way about an early spring. 🙂 You relished your memories of a past trip, and I headed to the travel agent to book a trip to see the tulips in Amsterdam, the beautiful country and American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg, and to eat chocolate in one hand and drink wheat beer in the other in Belgium. 🙂

  2. Thanks for the memories, Jason. I was on the USS Forrestal in 1960 when we became the first US carrier to visit Istanbul. Imagine that huge ship at anchor in the Bosphorus in view of ayasofya. Little did I then realize that a short two years later I would be stationed in Turkey, near Istanbul. It became one of our favorite cities…the wonderful people, the great food opportunities, the grand bazaar, the night life…and all that history.

  3. These are beautiful photos. We love to travel with our sons, too, when we can -it’s especially wonderful to do that now that they’re not home. We hope to go to Paris this spring as one son has a co-op there; and we met up last summer, too, in Sicily. I enjoy all of your travel posts, Jason.

  4. The weather is gnarly here too. So anxious for spring. Thanks for taking us away. I delight in vicarious travel through your blog. I have always wanted a capital or two to use in the garden. One of these would be wonderful. Such a wealth of art in these old buildings. Even the building itself is out of this world. I am glad the mosaics weren’t totally destroyed. That kind of restoration is so costly. It seems like their country is so poor. Maybe some of it is our tax dollars at work. ??

  5. Saw a terrifc program on PBS this week about Ayasofya. How wonderful it must have been to visit! Like you, I’m really weary of winter. I’ve been keeping my eye on the 10-day forecast and it still doesn’t look good; while the days are warming up, many of the nights will still be in the 20s. Guess that sounds warm to you, though.

  6. Ah yes…the cold. I’m with you. I feel a late spring happening this year as I heard the Great Lakes are more frozen this year than last. I really enjoyed seeing the restoration process happening in this gorgeous building… It is exquisite and reminds me of the architecture I studied in art history. How fantastic that your traveling worked out so perfectly and what an awesome trip!!! Nicole

  7. I could really kick myself for not going to Istanbul when I was over there and had the opportunity. So many loved the city, architecture and of course the religious structures like Hagia Sofia. We studied that building in college. I think the culture would have intrigued me too, yet at this time in our history, travel to Turkey is not as safe as it once was. I am glad to have seen a number of Cathedrals in Eastern and Central Europe because one day they might not be standing.

  8. I am not religious, at all, but i love sacred architecture, and don’t miss an opportunity to visit an old church if the doors are open. I am also a fan of Islamic architecture, so Ayasofya has always intrigued me, though the Philistine in me still knows it as the Hagia Sophia. Were you also able to visit the Blue Mosque?

  9. Such a beautiful City and thanks so much for reminiscing with us Jason. The history, architecture and artwork, we often forget how lucky we are here in Europe.
    I hope it warms up for you before too long. We are experiencing some of your cold blowing in from the Atlantic and can only imagine how awful it is for you all over there.

  10. I found this fascinating! What a stunning building, good to see the restoration too.
    How interesting that Danny studied in Russia for a time, and how well those flights coordinated!
    -16…..that’s fairly grim, here’s to your spring putting in an appearance. Lots of my spring bulbs are up, shame it’s hailing something shocking as I type! xxx

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