I can’t describe the feeling I got when I set foot in Hagia Sophia for the first time. It was bigger and more awe-inspiring than I had ever imagined. How could a building of this magnitude be built 15 centuries ago? How could it stand the test of time, through earthquakes, wars, and human interference? The exterior is one thing, but the interior is even more spectacular.
The building is entered through the narthex. This double corridor has a row of doors that separate the outer and inner narthex and then the naos (main part of the church). A ramp at the northern end of the outer narthex leads to the upper gallery, which can’t be missed on your visit.
Among some of the artifacts I found on display in the narthex are stone tablets with inscriptions in Greek. They’re resolutions from a Synod assembly in 1166 under Emperor Manuel I Komnenos and Ecumenical Patriarch Loukas Chrysovergis. There’s also a sarcophagus used by a Byzantine empress.
The largest door in the inner narthex is the Imperial Gate. The wooden door dates back to 6th century, stands 7m high, and leads to the naos. During Byzantine times, only the emperor was allowed to pass through the door. It’s crowned with the Mosaic of the Imperial Gate.
Passing through the Imperial Gate into the naos is capable of giving any visitor goosebumps. Try imagining the scene on May 29, 1453. Sultan Mehmet II’s Ottoman army breached the previously unpenetrable Walls of Constantinople after a 53 day siege. Frightened Constantinopolitans ran to Hagia Sophia and other churches to take refuge and bolted the doors.
Shortly after, the Ottoman troops battered down the doors of the temple to find the citizens participating in the Holy Liturgy. The soldiers looted the church, raped the women, and slaughtered the elderly and sick. Priests continued to perform Christian rites until they were forced to stop. The Sultan entered the church and demanded it immediately be converted into a mosque. An Ulama climbed the pulpit and recited the Shahada, ending over 900 years of Hagia Sophia’s existence as a church.
The marble pillars and arches are quite a sight, but the dome is the most striking feature of Hagia Sophia. It stands 55.6m above the ground and roughly 31m across, resting on several windows to allow natural light to enter the building. Parts of it have collapsed a few times due to earthquakes and the repairs have left it with more of an oblong shape, but it’s still impressive. The last major renovation occurred between 1847 and 1849 under Sultan Abdülmecid I. During the renovation, Ottoman calligrapher Kazasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi wrote the 35th verse of the Koran on the dome. A mosaic of Christ Pantocrator is believed to be underneath, but uncovering it would mean destroying priceless Islamic artwork.
Nothing remains from the original Christian altar. After 1453, the Christian mosaics were plastered over, and the bells, iconostasis, and other Christian elements were removed. In its place is the Islamic mihrab indicating the direction towards Mecca. Behind the altar are beautiful stained glass windows added by the Ottomans.
In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned Hagia Sophia into a museum. He had the carpets removed to expose the marble floor for the first time in hundreds of years. This made it possible to see the Omphalion, which is the spot where Byzantine emperors were coronated.
Two huge lustration urns carved out of a single block of marble were relocated to Hagia Sophia from Pergamon by Murat III. They were made around 330 BC and can hold 1250 liters of water. They were used to distribute juice to worshippers during Islamic holidays and celebrations.
Finally, on the northwest corner of Hagia Sophia is a column with a small hole in the middle. It’s covered by a bronze plate and hard to miss. The Wishing Column is damp when touched and is said to have healing powers. According to one legend, the dampness is the tear of the Virgin Mary. Visitors would put their finger in the hole and rub the moisture on the part of their body that was ailing, hoping for a cure. Nowadays, people put their thumb in the hole and make a complete clockwise turn for good look.