8 Interesting Things You Didn't Know About Istanbul's Hagia Sophia


Shasha Dania •  Jul 01, 2020

Turkey has reopened its borders to international travellers - and while we may not be rushing to book flights just yet, it's definitely got us excited at the thought of visiting in the future! ? The country is full of exciting things to do around every corner, but if you're planning a 6D5N adventure around Turkey one attraction you can't miss is definitely the Hagia Sophia! This grand structure is one of the most famous landmarks of the city, and holds the history of Istanbul within its walls. With centuries of history behind it, here are 8 interesting facts about the Hagia Sophia you should know before you visit!

1. Nothing of the Hagia Sophia's original structure remains today.

The spot where the Hagia Sophia stands originally housed as the Church of Constantius II, built over 1500 years ago in 360 AD! ? It was known as the 'Magna Ecclesia' or 'Great Church' as it was bigger than all the churches in the city at its time. Unfortunately, this church was burnt down during riots in 404, and there are no remains of this original structure today.

The main building of the Hagia Sophia was inaugurated in 537, after 5 years and 10 months of construction. Even back then it was seen as a major architectural work and involved materials from across the Byzantine empire! Imperial ceremonies such as coronations frequently took place within its walls.

#HHWT Tip: Today, the Hagia Sophia is located near other iconic attractions like the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. If you're staying around the area you can even save a little on transportation! ? Check out more must-have tips for exploring Istanbul on a budget.

2. It has been destroyed and rebuilt over 8 times.

After its destruction in 404, it was rebuilt as the Church of Theodosius II in 415. Unfortunately, that church was also burnt down in a fire in 532. ? Following that, the building was destroyed and rebuilt after multiple earthquakes. The Hagia Sophia is actually built on a fault line, making it extra vulnerable to earthquakes and natural disasters! There were earthquakes in 553, 557, 558, 869, 989, and 1344 that resulted in severe damage to the building.

Over time it has been restored to its glory, but the humidity in Istanbul today means that some spots still suffer from water damage. While it's still captivating in its grand beauty, it was even placed on the World Monuments Watch in 1996 and 1998 as it needed urgent repairs, and the latest renovations were carried out as recently as 2006. Renovation and restoration work still takes place today, but you can admire the beauty of the interior without any worry.

3. It has a bit of a dark and gory past.

Being the main religious building in Istanbul (originally known as Byzantium and then Constantinople), the Hagia Sophia was always affected when the city was overtaken by invaders. It was ransacked and desecrated by crusaders during the Fourth Crusade, and then again by the Ottomans during their invasion of Constantinople in 1481.

Today, centuries later, it stands as a museum and testament to its long history and presence throughout the changes that Istanbul has gone through. A morbid attraction within its grounds is the mausoleum tombs of Ottoman Sultans that lie in the historic buildings next to the museum. After you've paid a visit to the Hagia Sophia and its surrounding buildings, here's how you can spend 3 days exploring the rest of Istanbul too!

4. It was a church and Roman Catholic cathedral before it became a mosque.

The original building on the site was a church, but it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral while Constantinople was occupied by crusaders during the 4th Crusade. It was turned back into an Eastern Orthodox church in 1261, and one of the most famous mosaics in its interior - the Deësis mosaic - was actually commissioned in the same year to celebrate this!

5. It was only converted into a mosque in the 15th-century.

After the Ottoman invasion in 1481, Sultan Mehmet II declared that the building would be converted from a church into a mosque. That means it's actually spent more time as a church or cathedral than a mosque so far in its lifetime! This conversion has happened across the centuries, starting with fixtures like minarets being installed, and the building of madrasahs within the complex.

In 1847, renovations under Sultan Abdulmecid installed the iconic gigantic circular disks that you can still see today. The disks are inscribed with the names of Allah, Muhammad, the first 4 caliphs, and 2 grandchildren of the Prophet - Hasan and Hussain. If you can see these disks in person, they're a truly stunning sight!

#HHWT Tip: The Hagia Sophia is just one destination showcasing centuries of Islamic influence and history - here are 9 more stunning places where you can learn about the influence and story of Islam in Europe!

6. It is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.

Even at the time when it was built, the Hagia Sophia was regarded as an architectural marvel, and many neo-Byzantine churches and Ottoman mosques have been modelled on it. Its richly decorated interiors, with walls covered in mosaics and towering marble pillars, are a hallmark of Byzantine style and grandeur. ? The sheer size and scale are difficult to describe - it's really something you've got to see with your own eyes!

Of course, its famous dome is what the Hagia Sophia is known worldwide for. The main dome is a stunning 55.6 metres above floor level, with a diameter ranging between 31.24-30.86 metres. Smaller domes and arched openings surround this main dome, and you can see how this has influenced other neo-Byzantine buildings like the Blue Mosque or Topkapi Palace. These 3 iconic buildings are what every visitor to Turkey definitely has to see before they leave!

7. Its famous mosaics were once covered up.

The original Byzantine rulers and caretakers of the building decorated the interior with stunning mosaics and frescos depicting biblical scenes and figures such as Jesus, the Virgin Mary, saints, apostles, and even Byzantine emperor or empresses. After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, they covered up the frescos and mosaics with whitewash and plaster as Islam does not allow for iconoclastic works venerating depictions of icons and figures.

Credit: Ian Scott on Flickr

It was only in 1930 that excavations and renovations uncovered these mosaics and artefacts. Some of the oldest marble reliefs dating back to the 6th century still exist today and can be seen in an excavation pit next to the museum's entrance. They depict 12 lambs, representing the 12 apostles of Jesus. ?

8. It was converted into a museum in 1935.

Under President Ataturk of the newly secular Turkish republic, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum for visitors and re-opened in February 1935. To get it ready for the public, the plaster and whitewash were removed to showcase the mosaics and original marble decor.

P.S. While you're there, look out for the museum cat Gli! Turkey is full of strays, but this tabby cat was born in the Hagia Sophia in 2004 and has become its 'security guard' ever since along with her sister Kizim. ? Gli can be seen napping or prowling around inside the building, and her name means 'Union of love'. ❤️

The Hagia Sophia is one of the most visited museums in Turkey today, and in 2006 a prayer room was even allocated for Christians and Muslims to use. Since 2013, the azan has also been sung from one of its towering minarets twice each afternoon. Today you can see both the disks installed by the Ottomans and the Christian reliefs and depictions - reflecting how the Hagia Sophia has housed worshippers of both faiths throughout its lifetime! Though its past has been marked by periods of darkness as well as light, the Hagia Sophia stands today as a stunning reminder of Istanbul's rich history and Turkey's secular society with rich religious roots. ?

Note: Do note that opening hours or details may change according to COVID-19 measures.

Entrance fee: 100 TL

Opening hours:

Winter (1 October-1 April): 9AM - 5PM (Tues-Sun, Box office closes 4.30PM), closed on Mondays

Summer (2 April-30 Sept): 9AM - 7PM (Tues-Sun, Box office closes 6.30PM), closed on Mondays

Address: Cankurtaran Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydani No. 1Cm 34122 Fatih/Istanbul