An insider’s tour of Hagia Sophia
The mosaics are some of Hagia Sophia's best sights. (Andrew Graham/BBC)
Istanbul, set at the border of the East and West and with a skyline studded by domes and minarets, was the favourite city of Bond author Ian Fleming. It also formed a backdrop for the films From Russia with Love and The World is Not Enough and, on the 50th anniversary of James Bond’s first cinematic appearance, was chosen for key scenes in his latest, Skyfall.
Of Istanbul’s many ancient wonders, the most famed is Hagia Sophia. The building has served as a museum for the past 77 years and, prior to that, was a religious centre for Istanbul and the wider world for more than 1,400 years. It began as a church in 537 under the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, eager to go one up on his Roman antecedents by building a structure on an unprecedented scale. Entering the completed church, he modestly remarked, ‘Oh Solomon! I have outdone you.’
It was still the largest building in the world when Ottoman Turks set about converting it into a mosque after capturing Istanbul from the Byzantines in 1453, and formed a blueprint for its famous neighbour, the Blue Mosque.
Follow us as we take a tour through the hidden tales of this one-of-a-kind mosque.
The Emperor Door
The largest door in the Hagia Sophia is the so-called Emperor Door, which was originally used only by Byzantine emperors and their entourage. One story suggests that the door is made of wood from Noah’s Ark – Emperor Heraclius is known to have gone looking for the ark in what’s now eastern Turkey, back in the seventh century. Above the door is one of the Hagia Sophia’s glorious mosaics – that of Christ the Pantocrator.
These circular marble slabs form the Omphalion – the site where Byzantine emperors were crowned. The Byzantines considered themselves the natural successors to ancient Rome after the division of the Roman Empire into eastern and western parts in the fourth century AD. In the event, the Byzantines in the east clung on for nearly a millennium longer than their western counterparts.
The upper gallery houses Hagia Sophia’s most impressive mosaics, among them that of Empress Zoe, an 11thcentury Byzantine. First married aged 50, Zoe had three husbands, famously marrying her courtier the day that the first passed away (he was said to have been poisoned). The mosaic was tactfully altered with the arrival of each new husband.
Hagia Sophia’s greatest architectural legacy is its revolutionary dome – intended to be bigger, taller and more impressive than any other dome that had gone before it – although construction took something of a trial and error format, with one total collapse after an earthquake in 558. Now supported by 40 ribs, the dome is fittingly inscribed with the Light Verse from the Koran: ‘Allah is the light of the heavens and the Earth.’
The Sultan’s Loge
During Ottoman rule, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a külliye, or social mosque complex, with the building of a religious college, a soup kitchen and even a primary school. One of the more noticeable additions to the Hagia Sophia during this period was the Sultan’s Loge – a raised kiosk built in the 18th century allowing Ottoman sultans to pray in the mosque without being seen.
The Weeping Column
The Hagia Sophia may no longer be a place of worship, but one superstition – allegedly dating back to the days of Justinian I – lives on. Legend has it that if you stick your thumb into a small hole in a copper facing of the ‘weeping column’ and your thumb emerges moist, you’ll be cured of all your ailments. Cynics point out that you’re more likely to get a wet thumb on busy days when plenty of sweaty digits have preceded you.
Make it happen
Hagia Sophia is in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district (admission £9; closed Mon).
This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.