After having had some challenges getting out of Egypt, my arrival in Istanbul continued to offer “experiences” as there was an unexpected change of plans that I shared in my Boarding Pass Series post about Istanbul. Since I had to find a place to stay all of a sudden, I opened my guidebook and fished around for some hotel that looked well situated, cheap enough, and nice enough. And that’s how I found the Hotel Pierre Loti, a small but well located hotel that became my source of accommodations for 5 days. It was definitely an easy walk to the main historic sites, like Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, and a score for the price point.
Each of the places I want to share with you deserves its own post, not only because of what I want to say about them but also because of the photos I want to share. If you are visiting Istanbul, one thing to keep in mind is that most of the places I write about are within walking distance of each other so it is only a matter of how much you can or want to cover in one day.
In this first post, I will share what I consider to be the crown jewel of Istanbul as a history and architecture lover - its “grand dame”: the Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.
A church is born
This is one of the most amazing structures that I have seen. It is not imposing in the same way that, say, Versailles is amazing. But if you hear or read its story and consider how old that structure is, it is nothing short of incredible. I stood in the center of the museum looking around in awe and disbelief that I finally got to see in person this unique piece of architecture and history that I had learned about in high school days. The ability to build a structure that could support such a large dome back when the church was built is incredible in and of itself (the dome has had repairs over the centuries).
The current structure with its massive dome has its origin in the 6th century when it was built by Roman emperor Justinian as a Christian church (it was the third church built on that site). It was one of the most magnificent churches in the world at that time and for centuries to come. In fact, it was the world’s largest cathedral for a thousand years! (You may wonder “who” dethroned it… the Cathedral of Seville built in 1520).
Hagia Sophia was decorated with mosaics all around and it is said to have re-defined the course of architecture. While it remained an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral for close to 900 years, for a very brief period (at that time scale), it served as a Roman Catholic Cathedral. In a way, Hagia Sophia was at the epicenter of the Great Schism that resulted in the split of the Catholic Church into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox “versions” around the year 1053.
Transformation into a mosque
The Christian church was converted to a mosque when Constantinople fell to the conquering Ottomans who came from what is today Asian Turkey in 1453. Lovers of history (or those with good memories of their world history class) know this was a key turning point in history. This event ended the existence of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine eastern half of the former Roman Empire). In essence, this killed off the last remnant of the Roman Empire which had existed in one form or another for around 1,500 years.
As part of the conversion to a mosque, minarets were added to the church so it would be a proper mosque and the mosaics were covered up or removed as images of people are not appropriate in a mosque. While I realize this goes with the belief system, I am saddened to think of all the beauty we don’t get to see. But at least the beautiful Islamic features compensate the loss of a good number of the mosaics.
Its current state
Eventually, after the fall of the Ottoman Empire (around World War I), Turkey moved to a more secular state under the guidance of its modernizing leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (my visit coincided with the 60th anniversary of his death hence you will notice flags at half mast in photos I may show in other posts from this trip).
During his presidency (he founded modern Turkey and was its first president), the Hagia Sophia was secularized by being converted into a museum. Like with any of the places on this list, a guided tour or audio guide (if available now) are the way to go; you will not truly understand the significance of the place without getting all the background. But the good news is that, so we can appreciate the history of the place, a few of the mosaics have been exposed. Impressive. The Hagia Sophia had fallen into disrepair but, mercifully, thanks to corporations and governments, the various issues are being worked through. One key item that was addressed was the potential risk to the dome’s long term viability.
For me and my interests, nothing beats the Hagia Sophia as the number one sight to see in Istanbul. And the day I return to Istanbul, you can be sure I will be going again.
Before you go, which days it is open (as with anything). Last I checked it was closed on Mondays.
A structure that represents its city
Istanbul, like the Hagia Sophia, has gone through a lot of “conversions”: Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. Due to its location at the crossroads of the “world” for many centuries, Istanbul has had a part in or been affected by most events in that part of the world. I am still fascinated by this incredible city that has seen so much and serves witness to all it has seen and by this structure that reflects all that perfectly.
I would really enjoy returning and spending another week exploring the many things I still did not get to discover in my only visit there. Stay tuned for more posts about the sights and sites of this great city. I leave you with a rewarding view of the Bosphorus.