Hagia Sophia Museum is the first “attraction” that practically all tour guides of Istanbul, recommend. And even at a glance, in a city full of attractions that vie for the top spot, every tourist will come away with the thought that yes, it has to be Hagia Sophia at Number 1.
Not because it is Istanbul’s most famous attraction, but because it is what makes Istanbul a tourist destination. The Lonely Planet says it surpasses the rest of the beautiful city’s spectacular attractions, due to “its innovative architectural form, rich history, religious importance and extraordinary beauty.”
The 5-day Istanbul city guide I had downloaded suggested we start our city tour with, of course, the Hagia Sophia Museum. In their itinerary, they recommended we spend one and a half hours there –from 9 am to10.30, and their tip was that we land there early to avoid the rush of people in a long, long queue, to buy the single-entry ticket, priced at 40 Turkish Liras. Can’t thank them enough for that suggestion—the queue was indeed long! The ticket was valid for the full day. Thank God it was, because even at closing time, we did not feel we had had enough of the breathtaking place.
If you are blown away by the first glance, which is really as the stand out feature in Istanbul’s skyline, wait till you get up close and personal with it. The stunning structure seems to be church, mosque, museum, history, contemporary, art, architecture, wonder, magnificence, divinity, and above all, a tribute to Man’s capability, all rolled into one. Grand would be a highly inadequate word to describe the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia, which is Ayasofya to the locals in Turkey. It was chosen the world heritage site by the UNESCO in 1985.
Built over five years as a church, by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and consecrated in 537, the Ottoman ruler Mehmet the conqueror declared it a mosque in 1453. They plundered the place but did not pull down Hagia Sofia, but added minarets and strengthened it to serve its new role. Altar, bells, and iconostasis, gave way to Islamic minarets, yet it incorporated the best elements of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires, Christianity and Islam.
After Turkey became a republic, its first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared it a museum in 1935. Now, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decreed that it goes back to being a mosque, for political reasons. Millions of lovers of art and architecture, history and culture are upset. Sophia is not a female name, but the Latin phonetic spelling of the Greek word for wisdom. And they cannot see any wisdom in Erdogan’s move.
The Hagia Sofia is not a museum like London’s famous Victoria and Albert Museum, with collections brought from outside. The walls, the frescoes, the murals and the mosaics are all part of the structure. The structure, from within and without is the tangible treasure that forms the museum. And its story and history are the intangibles.
And among them is the 10th century mosaic panel depicting Emperor Constantine, founder of Constantinople—modern day Istanbul—holding a model of the city, with Emperor Justinian holding a model of Hagia Sophia. One is offering Virgin Mary holding the Child, the city, and the other the largest cathedral of the time.
Many Ottoman mosques have been modeled after the Hagia Sofia, and become famous the world over. The Blue Mosque, breath-taking in its own way, the Suleimani mosque, also attract tourists and lovers of art, architecture and history by the hordes. They are open to tourists. But when you take off your foot wear, cover your head if you are a woman, and wait for the prayers to be over, you know it is not a museum, but a mosque.
But uppermost on my mind now is, will all the Byzantine treasures remain intact in these times when religious sensibilities have overtaken common sense!