Note: despite the mid-2020 change of use of this building from museum to mosque, visitors are still welcome here, albeit with certain restrictions in terms of dress and comportment. There is no longer an entrance fee, and it is closed during times of worship.
The finest example of Byzantine architecture in the world, Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophie) was completed in AD 537 was built as a cathedral by order of Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I, who was seeking to restore some of his capital’s faded grandeur. A true marvel of engineering for its (or indeed any other) time, the Hagia Sophia was the largest house of worship anywhere in the world, and remained so for almost a thousand years.
It remained an Eastern Orthodox cathedral almost continuously from its completion in 537 until 1453, with a brief period as a Roman Catholic one during the Crusades. After conquering Constantinople in 1453, however, Sultan Mehmet II (also called “Mehmet the Conqueror”) strode through its Imperial Door to claim the magnificent edifice for Islam.
It remained a working mosque until 1935, when president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk converted it to a museum as he sought to secularise the country, which it remained until 2020.
Hagia Sophia is perhaps most famous for its massive, breathtaking dome. Supported by 40 huge ribs, the dome is made of hollow bricks using a light, porous clay that allows for the uniquely ethereal, translucent light that fills the interior, captivating countless visitors down the centuries. In fact, when daylight enters at certain intensities, the dome actually seems to be floating. A spellbinding experience.
Soaring minarets and priceless mosaics
Hagia Sophia is also a must-see for its four imposing minarets, added by Mehmet when it was converted into a mosque, as well as its splendid mosaics.
However, with Islamic art strictly forbidden from depicting people or any other living creatures, many mosaics were plastered over – but not, mercifully, destroyed. Most, including some of the greatest medieval artistic representations of Jesus and many of Christianity’s very first saints, have gradually been restored since it was declared a museum in 1935.
Hagia Sophia opening hours (subject to times of worship)
- Summer schedule: 09:00-19:00 with a last entrance time of 18:00
- Winter schedule: 09:00-17:00 with a last entrance time of 16:00 (winter schedule)