Things to See and Do in Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is one of the most famous historical artifacts in the world. Hagia Sophia, which is the jewel of Istanbul, is visited by an average of 3 million people a year. In this article, you can find brief information about the history and architecture of Hagia Sophia, as well as photos of things to see in Hagia Sophia.

As someone who has guided hundreds of people in Hagia Sophia, I tried to prepare a guide that can help those who want to visit Hagia Sophia on their own. You can find things to do in Hagia Sophia from the middle of the page.

Hagia Sophia has been turned back into a mosque since 2020. However, it is still possible to follow the tour route I introduced in this article.

If you enter Hagia Sophia and go to the courtyard in the west, where there used to be ticket offices, you can visit the structure as before. This courtyard with the cafeteria and columns from the old church can be easily found.

Things to See in Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

History of Hagia Sophia

In order to fully comprehend the place of today’s Hagia Sophia in history, it is necessary to start long before it was built, that is, the 4th century when Constantinople was founded. Because the history of Hagia Sophia is not a single period. Hagia Sophia, which is still standing today, is the third church built in the same place.

1. Emperor Constantine

The construction of the first Hagia Sophia is attributed to Emperor Constantine. But the Great Church, also known as Megale Ekklesia, was completed by his son Constantius II. We know that the first church was burned in a riot by the people of the city.

Why would the people of Constantinople set fire to their church? Of course, they had their reasons. I’d better explain it in another article. However, to give a brief explanation, it was due to the exile of the archbishop of Constantinople by the emperor Arcadius. This famous cleric’s name was John Chrysostom.

2. Emperor Theodosius II

Hagia Sophia History

The second Hagia Sophia was built by Theodosius II. This church, which managed to survive for about a century, was destroyed in another rebellion. This time the riot was against Justinian, the most famous emperor in Byzantine history.

This uprising, called the Nika Revolt, is one of the most important events in Byzantine history. When the second Hagia Sophia collapsed, the structure still standing today was built.

3. Emperor Justinian

The new church to be built in place of the second Hagia Sophia was very important for Emperor Justinian. He wanted to restore his reputation, which was disrupted by the Nika Revolt. For this purpose, he appointed two of the most important mathematicians of Anatolia. Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus were the most brilliant architects of the period.

Justinian’s previous church, Church of Sergius and Bacchus, was built by Anthemius. In other words, one of the architects had already proved his talents. Some historians claim that this structure, now known as the Little Hagia Sophia, was the pioneer of the techniques to be applied in Hagia Sophia.

Church of Sergius and Bacchus

Architecture of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia abandoned the traditional basilica plan of early Roman churches. Even though Hagia Sophia had a revolutionary architecture, it also preserved the interior architecture of basilica extending from east to west.

The trademark of Hagia Sophia was the presence of a giant dome on the Roman arches in the middle of a square structure. In addition, two half domes were placed around one full dome. This architectural style was unprecedented in the world.

The size of the dome created an incredible pressure on the side walls of the building. However, some of this pressure was transferred by the pendants to the supporting columns and half-domes. The pendentives on which archangels were painted were a new invention in the history of architecture.

Hagia Sophia Architecture
The Dome, Half-Domes and Pendantives

Things to See and Do in Hagia Sophia

Here are a list of things to See in Hagia Sophia with relevant photos. In the lines below you can find a list of 17 headings of things to do in and around Hagia Sophia. This was the route to visit Hagia Sophia when it was a museum.

1. Remnants in the Courtyard

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When you pass through the turnstiles and enter the garden of Hagia Sophia, you will see some columns and ruins in the garden. These remnants in the courtyard belong to the second Hagia Sophia (Theodosius II period).

If you examine the above picture carefully, you can read the emperor’s name “Theodosius” on the column of the ruined church. There are hundreds of such remains in the courtyard of today’s Hagia Sophia.

2. Outer Narthex

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When you enter the Hagia Sophia, you will meet the Outer Narthex (exterior corridor) first. Here are detailed information panels. Here you can see how the first and second Hagia Sophia looks from the sample pictures.

3. Imperial Gate

Hagia Sophia Facts

When you pass the inner corridor you will see the Imperial Gate. Although the magnificent dome of Hagia Sophia encourages you to enter the main space immediately, don’t forget to look at the magnificent Byzantine mosaic above the Imperial Gate.

4. Emperor Leo VI Mosaic

Mosaic of Emperor Leo VI the Wise

Throughout 900 years of church history, Byzantine emperors entered the church through this gate. The mosaic of Emperor Leo VI, also known as Leo the Wise, can be seen above the entrance door.

Leo bowed to the ground to show his respect to Jesus sitting on the throne. This mosaic is one of the most beautiful depictions of Christ Pantocrator “Ruler of All” in Istanbul. Virgin Mary can be seen on the left medallion whereas Archangel Gabriel is placed on the right medallion.

5. Hagia Sophia Interior

Interior Photo of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia was the most important church of the Byzantine period. However, Hagia Sophia is not the only building left from the Byzantine era. Byzantine churches which can be visited as museums today are Hagia Sophia, Chora Church and Pammakaristos Church respectively.

If you want to see the interior of Hagia Sophia as in this photo, you have to go to the empress’s lodge on the upper floor.

6. Center of Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia Omphalion

The Hagia Sophia, which remained a church for 900 years and a mosque for 500 years, intertwined the legacy of two religions. The medallions and chandeliers added while the Hagia Sophia was a mosque are side by side with the Christian mosaics made while the Hagia Sophia was a church.

The colored marbles in the center of Hagia Sophia represent Omphalion, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. While the patriarch crowned the emperor, his wife followed the ceremony from the empress lodge upstairs.

7. Seraphim Angels

Seraphim Angels

The six-winged Seraphim Angels, believed to have guarded the door of heaven, are on the pendantives all over the dome. The angels’ faces were closed due to Islamic rules during the Ottoman period. It was opened during the restoration works that started in Ayasofya twenty years ago and still continues.

It was difficult to believe that Hagia Sophia was a human structure in the years it was built. For this reason, Hagia Sophia was associated with various legends throughout the Middle Ages. According to one of these, the archangels on all four sides of the dome were carrying the dome, which seemed to be hung from the sky.

8. Virgin Mary and the Child

Virgin Mary and the Child Mosaic

The Virgin Mary and the Child on the eastern wall where the altar stood in the past is the oldest Byzantine mosaic of Hagia Sophia. Pictured Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in her arms. Mosaic dates from the beginning of the 9th century.

What is the Byzantine Iconoclasm?

If the Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century, one wonders “Why there are no older mosaics in it?”. The reason for this is the emperor Leo III, who ordered the destruction of all mosaics within the borders of the Byzantine Empire. This period is called Byzantine Iconoclasm.

Iconoclastic Controversy lasted about a century and the early Byzantine mosaics were completely destroyed. This period, which undermined Byzantine religious art, continued throughout the reign of Isauran dynasty. With the Macedonian dynasty seized the throne, the mosaics also returned.

9. Marbles of Hagia Sophia

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The Hagia Sophia was built between 532 and 537 in only 5 years and 10 months. Architects Anthemius and Isidore were under pressure from the emperor who wanted the building to be finished as soon as possible.

Architects have found ingenious solutions to some problems. For example, marble slabs were used to decorate the walls of the building. The architects divided the marbles of Hagia Sophia in half and used the veins inside as a symmetrical decoration element.

10. Upper Floor

Hagia Sophia Self Guided Tour

The most interesting place on the lower floor of the Hagia Sophia is, of course, the main section. However, I strongly recommend you not to leave Hagia Sophia without seeing the upper floor. Because the most beautiful mosaics are upstairs.

Taking Photos in Hagia Sophia

One of the best things to do in Hagia Sophia is to take photos of objects with hundreds of years of history. You can take the most beautiful photos here thanks to the light that flows through the windows on the second floor.

11. The Marble Door

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When the Hagia Sophia was a church, Synod Meetings were held behind Marble Door, which was considered sacred. Two of the First seven ecumenical councils in history were held in Constantinople. We know that the first Council of Constantinople gathered at Hagia Irene Church during Theodosius I.

It is believed that the second Council of Constantinople, which convened during the Justinian period, was held in the Great Palace of Constantinople or Hagia Sophia.

12. Deesis Mosaic

Deesis Mosaic of Christ Pantocrator

Deesis Mosaic depicts The Last Judgment. In the middle there is a Jesus depiction decorated with the magnificent shades of blue and yellow. To the right of Jesus stands Virgin Mary and to the left is John the Baptist.

John and Mary are sorry for people’s sins and ask for forgiveness on their behalf. This mosaic dating back to the 13th century is the most magnificent Byzantine art in Istanbul today.

13. Emperor John II and Eirene

Mosaic of John Komnenos

Emperor John II and Empress Eirene have made great donations to the Christians in Byzantium. The Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Eastern Church, ordered this mosaic to describe their donations.

14. Constantine IX and Empress Zoe

Mosaic of Empress Zoe

The mosaic of Constantine IX and Empress Zoe is the most interesting mosaic in Hagia Sophia. The reason for this is the story of the mosaic. I tell this story in detail during my private guided tours of Hagia Sophia.

15. Emperor Justinian and Constantine

Justinian and Constantine Mosaic

The most important Roman emperors in the history of Istanbul are, of course, Constantine and Justinian. In this mosaic, both present their works to Mary and Jesus.

Constantine presents the magnificent city of Constantinople, built in 6 years. Justinanus presents Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the world at the time of its construction.

One of the most important features of Emperor Justinian and Constantine mosaic is that it was made in the 10th century. These two emperors were respected at the highest level, although centuries had passed since their deaths.

16. Ottoman Fountain

Ottoman Ablution Fountain

There are monumental drinking fountains in every corner of the Istanbul Old City. The most famous of these is the Fountain of Ahmed III at the entrance of Topkapi Palace.

This Ottoman Fountain (for ablution) in Hagia Sophia’s courtyard is a beautiful blend of classical Ottoman art and baroque architecture.

17. Tombs of the Sultans

Things to Do in Hagia Sophia

One of the most interesting things to do in Hagia Sophia is to visit the tombs of the Sultans, located in the courtyard of the building. Some Ottoman Sultans admired the beauty and history of Hagia Sophia. Therefore they wanted to rest next to it.

Sultans who wanted to be buried in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia when they died lived mostly in the 16th and 17th century. If you visit the tombs in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia, you can observe the ornamental elements produced during the best period of Ottoman art.

Things to See in Hagia Sophia by Serhat Engul

2 Comments Add yours

  1. blank Dorsey Verdun says:

    Having read this I believed it was rather enlightening. I appreciate you taking the time and energy to put this informative article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

    1. blank Serhat Engul says:

      Hi Dorsey, thank you for the feedback. I am happy to see that the post has been helpful.

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