There’s a reason why the Hagia Sofia is so
evocative of all of Istanbul: It’s a microcosm of the city's entire history, from Roman origins to Ottoman Islam to today’s (relatively) secular
The site initially held an ancient temple, some remnants of
which remain in the current structure — like the dolphin design on the column to the right. The first Christian cathedral was built
on the site in 360 A.D.; it was rebuilt twice, both times after being destroyed by riots. (To see what the older Hagia Sofia(s) would have looked like, check out Byzantium 1200's digital reconstructions).
building, which dates back to 537, was the largest church in the Roman empire. It also remained the biggest cathedral in the world for almost a millennium, beat out only by
the Seville Cathedral in 1520.
In 1453, with Constantinople’s seizure by the
Ottomans, the Hagia Sofia was turned into a mosque. And in 1935, at the height of Turkey’s
secularization under Ataturk, it became a museum.
See what I mean about it being a microcosm of Istanbul — and Turkey — in general?
You could write a book on the Hagia Sofia. (Many have). But among the many treasures not to miss are
its gorgeous Byzantine mosaics, which date back as far as the 9th century. Also
make sure you check out the seraphim (above) who was only recently uncovered: Although
his three compatriots are still plastered over, his face was revealed this year after
being hidden for centuries by the Ottomans.
For a clear tie to the city of Rome, meanwhile, look no further than the gray granite disk set into the floor, on the right of the middle of the church (left). Placed here by Justinian in the 530s, this is where the Byzantine emperors knelt to be crowned as early as 641. If you've visited St. Peter's Basilica, you know that the Roman basilica boasts a similar disk in red porphyry; that's the rota porphyretica, set into the old St. Peter's Basilica and the spot where the pope crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800. The similarity in the two stones is no mistake. Charlemagne was setting himself up in direct opposition to the "other" successors to the Roman empire, the Byzantines, and by crowning him, Pope Leo III was showing that the papacy had wriggled from Byzantine control and was choosing the Holy Roman Empire as its protector instead. It's also no mistake that the St. Peter's Basilica disk is red porphyry, a precious stone that "one-upped" its sister stone in the Hagia Sofia. (Take that, Byzantines!)
On a broader, architectural note, of course, it's no surprise that the Hagia Sofia looks — almost — reminiscent of that seemingly divinely-inspired building in Rome: the Pantheon. Both structures innovated in setting a circular dome on a square, rather than circular, shape. And both awed contemporaries by building domes on such a large scale: The Hagia Sofia's original dome, which collapsed in 559, was thought to be slightly bigger in diameter but shallower than the current one, built in 563. Even so, the Hagia Sofia's dome today is 102 feet in diameter — just 40 feet smaller than the Pantheon's. (Check out the difference between the two in the images, below).
Don't miss the garden of the church, either. There, in an unassuming tumble that reminded me of abandoned bits of column in Rome's Forum, lie several marble blocks from the second church, dating back to 415. The most striking among them depicts twelve lambs, each symbolizing one of the twelve apostles. Many more remnants of the ancient church remain in the area — but they're still buried underneath the ground, excavations ending in the 1930s after it was realized that continued work could harm the current structure.
Even without that, though, there are enough treasures in the Hagia Sofia to keep a history or archaeology geek satisfied — and maybe a little bit awed.