Hagia Sophia, which served as a church for 916 years, was converted into a mosque by Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1453 after the conquest of Istanbul and remained a mosque for 482 years. In 1935, under Atatürk’s orders and the decision of the Council of Ministers, it became a museum open to visitors. In 2020, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to convert it back into a mosque, open for Muslims.
If you’re visiting Istanbul for the first time, you must visit the Hagia Sophia. Here, we’ve compiled 14 important facts about Hagia Sophia interior.
- Columns and Marbles Imported from Ancient Cities
- The Dome
- The Emperor's Gate
- The Apse Mosaic
- The Two Angels in the Apse
- The Viking Inscription
- Presentation Mosaic
- Dome Angel Portraits
- Patriarch Mosaics
- Wishing Column
- Marble Jars
- Sultan Mahmud I Library
- Eight Large Calligraphy Panels
Columns and Marbles Imported from Ancient Cities
Emperor Justinian requested materials from across the empire for the reconstruction of the church, gathering materials from old structures. This included eight large red columns from Heliopolis in Egypt, as well as columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and Baalbek in Syria. Additionally, various types and colors of marbles were brought from different regions.
Hagia Sophia’s most significant architectural feature is its unusually large size for a church. The dome covering the main space has a height of 55 meters from the floor and an average diameter of 31 meters. Marble, stone, and brick were used by architects during its construction. Specially produced, lightweight and strong bricks from Rhodes were used to make the dome more resistant to earthquakes.
The Emperor’s Gate
Named the Emperor’s Gate because it was used only by the Emperor and his close relatives, this is Hagia Sophia’s largest entrance. Made of oak, it stands 7 meters tall and features bronze frames. Eastern Roman sources claim the gate was built from the planks of Noah’s Ark. The mosaic found on it is the first one discovered in Hagia Sophia.
The Apse Mosaic
It is believed that all figurative mosaics were removed during the Iconoclasm period. Following the end of this era in 843, the first figurative mosaic, the Apse Mosaic, was created in Hagia Sophia. The mosaic depicts the Virgin Mary seated on a throne adorned with precious stones, holding baby Jesus in her lap.
The Two Angels in the Apse
On the right side of the apse is a depiction of the Archangel Gabriel, while the left side features the Archangel Michael. Although the Gabriel portrayal largely remains intact, only a portion of the Michael portrayal has survived. It is believed that these two depictions were added in the 9th century.
The Viking Inscription
Found in the southern part of Hagia Sophia, a 9th-century Viking inscription reads, “Halvdan was here.” It is believed that a Viking soldier working as a mercenary in the Eastern Roman Empire wrote this.
Uncovered by Fossati in 1849 during a restoration, this mosaic above the ceremonial gate used by the emperor and his family features the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in her lap. Emperor Constantine is depicted on her left and Emperor Justinian on her right, symbolizing their protection of the city and the church.
Dome Angel Portraits
Each corner of the dome features Seraphim angels, believed to guard God’s throne in heaven. The eastern angels are made of mosaic, while the western ones were restored as frescoes.
Although the exact dates are unknown, these mosaics in the northern part of Hagia Sophia are thought to be from the 9th or 10th century. Only three of the depicted patriarch figures have survived well-preserved.
The Omphalion is where Eastern Roman emperors were ceremonially crowned.
There are a few legends about this column, Emperor Justinian and Khidr:
Leaned on it during a severe headache, which then disappeared, leading locals to believe the column had healing properties.
Two marble jars from the Hellenistic Period, found in the ancient city of Pergamon, were brought to Hagia Sophia during Sultan Murad III‘s reign. These jars, with a capacity of 1250 liters, were used to distribute sherbet during festivals and religious celebrations.
Sultan Mahmud I Library
Also known as Hagia Sophia Library, it was founded by Sultan Mahmud I and opened on April 21, 1740. At its inception, the library had a collection of 4,000 works.
Eight Large Calligraphy Panels
Created during the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid, these panels feature gold gilding on a green hemp background. They display the names of “Allah, Prophet Muhammad, the Four Caliphs, Hasan, and Husayn” and are the largest calligraphy panels in the Islamic world. Each panel is 7.5 meters in diameter, with letter thickness measuring 35 centimeters.
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