There are many important monuments in İstanbul, but this venerable structure – commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935 – surpasses the rest due to its innovative architectural form, rich history, religious importance and extraordinary beauty.
As you enter the building and walk into the inner narthex, look up to see a brilliant mosaic of Christ as Pantocrator (Ruler of All) above the third and largest door (the Imperial Door). Through this is the building’s main space, famous for its dome, huge nave and gold mosaics.
The focal point at this level is the apse, with its magnificent 9th-century mosaic of the Virgin and Christ Child . The mosaics above the apse once depicted the archangels Gabriel and Michael; today only fragments remain.
The Byzantine emperors were crowned while seated in a throne placed within the omphalion, the section of inlaid marble in the main floor.
Ottoman additions to the building include a mimber (pulpit) and mihrab (prayer niche indicating the direction of Mecca); large 19th-century medallions inscribed with gilt Arabic letters; a curious elevated kiosk known as the hünkar mahfili ; and an ornate library behind the omphalion.
Looking up towards the northeast (to your left if you are facing the apse), you will see three mosaics at the base of the northern tympanum (semicircle) beneath the dome. These are 9th-century portraits of St Ignatius the Younger, St John Chrysostom and St Ignatius Theodorus of Antioch.To their right on one of the pendentives is a 14th-century mosaic of the face of a seraph (six-winged angel charged with the caretaking of God’s throne).
In the side aisle to the northeast of the Imperial Door is a column with a worn copper facing pierced by a hole, known as the Weeping Column. Legend has it that the pillar was blessed by St Gregory the Miracle Worker and that putting one’s finger into the hole can lead to ailments being healed if the finger emerges moist.
To access the galleries, walk up the switchback ramp at the northern end of the inner narthex. When you reach the top, you’ll find a large circle of green marble marking the spot where the throne of the empress once stood.
In the south gallery (straight ahead and then left) are the remnants of a magnificent Deesis (Last Judgement). This 13th-century mosaic depicts Christ with the Virgin Mary on his left and John the Baptist on his right.
Further on, at the eastern (apse) end of the gallery, is a 11th-century mosaic depicting Christ Enthroned with Empress Zoe and Constantine IX Monomachos.
To the right of Zoe and Constantine is a 12th-century mosaic depicting The Virgin Mary, Emperor John Comnenus II and Empress Eirene . The emperor, who was known as ‘John the Good’, is on the Virgin’s left and the empress, who was known for her charitable works, is to her right. Their son Alexius, who died soon after the portrait was made, is depicted next to Eirene.
In the north gallery, look for the 10th-century mosaic portrait of the Emperor Alexandros.
Exiting the Building
As you leave the outer narthex, be sure to look back to admire the 10th-century mosaic of Constantine the Great, the Virgin Mary and the Emperor Justinian on the lunette of the inner doorway. Constantine (right) is offering the Virgin, who holds the Christ Child, the city of İstanbul; Justinian (left) is offering her Aya Sofya.
Just after you exit the building through the Beautiful Gate, a magnificent bronze gate dating from the 2nd century BC, there is a doorway on the left. This leads into a small courtyard that was once part of a 6th-century Baptistry. In the 17th century the Baptistry was converted into a tomb for Sultans Mustafa I and İbrahim I. The huge stone basin displayed in the courtyard is the original font.
On the opposite side of Aya Sofya Meydanı are the Baths of Lady Hürrem (Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı), built between 1556 and 1557. Designed by Sinan, the hamam was commissioned by Süleyman the Magnificent in the name of his wife Hürrem Sultan, known to history as Roxelana.