No other building reflects the soul of Istanbul and its turbulent past like the world-famous Hagia Sophia.
Once the most powerful church of early Christianity and called the eighth wonder of the world, the iconic monument is one of the greatest structures in the world in terms of art and architectural history.
After serving as a museum for many years, Hagia Sophia can now be visited as a mosque. With its unique and fascinating architecture, the UNESCO World Heritage Site is and should be on every traveler's itinerary.
In this guide, you will learn everything you need to know before your visit, including history, entrance, tours and hours.
Things to do at Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia, considered by many to be Istanbul's greatest landmark, is one of the most important examples of Byzantine architecture. The church-turned-mosque-turned-museum-turned-mosque again, is particular famous for its unique interior, blending Christian and Muslim elements.
Located on the Historical Peninsula, Hagia Sophia is welcoming throngs of visitors every day. Although it has served as a mosque since 2020, it remains open for tourists and followers of other religions to visit.
See below the Highlights you shouldn’t miss on your visit:
Be sure to take time to explore the exterior of the landmark. One distinctive feature are of course the four minarets that were added during the Ottoman period.
You can start exploring this masterpiece in the garden. Here you can see some surprises that many visitors miss. If you take a closer look, you will discover archaeological findings, such as preserved parts of the first Hagia Sophia from the 5th century.
There is also a sundial and timekeepers used to calculate the prayer times, as well as a round shaped fountain dating back to 1740.
Inside the magnificent building, the ornate mosaics whose gold had not yet dulled attract the attention of all visitors.
In the vestibule of the building, there is an impressive mosaic panel depicting Mother Mary and the two Byzantine emperors Constantine and Justinian at her side. If you look closer, you can see that Constantine is holding a model of Constantinople and Justinian is holding a model of Hagia Sophia.
Another remarkable mosaic panel is located above the exit gate at the end of the corridor. It shows Emperor Leo VI kneeling before Christ, with Mother Mary and an archangel at his side.
However, the most stunning mosaics can be found in the main room. On the apses, you can see the mosaic of Mother Mary and Jesus dating from the 9th century, which makes it the oldest mosaic in the structure, as well as a mosaic depicting Archangel Gabriel.
On the upper galleries are also impressive mosaics, especially the Mosaic panel of two imperial couples are worth seeing.
The Hagia Sophia is most famous for its monumental dome. There is a central dome and two half-domes that that together bear the enormous structure. At the same time, the central dome is supported by four arches on four columns.
In the center of the dome is a verse from the Quran that reads, "God is the light of the world."
Standing under the impressive dome, one can best admire the magnificent interior, illuminated by the golden light of the numerous chandeliers. Soak up the mystical atmosphere of this masterpiece, which undoubtedly hides many stories and details.
4. Calligraphic Medallions
Another element that immediately catches the visitor's eye are the calligraphic medallions mounted high above. There are eight of these massive black panels in total, bearing in gold the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the four caliphs and the two grandsons of Muhammad.
In fact, the calligraphic medallions were among the first additions made after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and subsequently converted the Hagia Sophia Church into a mosque.
5. Library of Sultan Mahmud I
On the right side of Hagia Sophia lies the library of Sultan Mahmud I. The room, adorned with Iznik tiles and a baroque-style grid, is quite impressive. Although the books have been moved to another library, you can still see the signature of Sultan Mahmud I, who commissioned this addition, and a calligraphy with a quote from the Quran.
Worth seeing is the ornate Mihrab from 1840, the prayer niche facing Mecca. You can find it in the apse. It is framed by golden ornaments and calligraphic panels with verses from the Quran, as well as two giant candle sticks.
Near the Mihrab is the Muezzin’s Lodge, a rectangular marble lodge that serves the muezzins who make the calls for prayer.
7. Upper Galleries
A long stone ramp leads visitors to the upper galleries, where you can admire the beauty of the main hall from a different perspective.
There are also the following points of interest:
- The Empress Lodge
- Viking Graffiti
- Memorial Stone for Crusader Enrico
- Deesis Mosaic from the 13th century
- Mosaic Panel of the Imperial Couples from the 11th/ 12th century
- Mosaic of Archangel Gabriel
What to Consider before Visiting a Mosque?
- Since Hagia Sophia is an active mosque, you should only visit it outside of prayer times. Some parts are closed to visitors during this time, especially during Friday prayer at noon. Prayer times are 5 times a day. You can check the times
- Remember that when entering a mosque, visitors must remove their shoes.
- Knees, shoulders and upper arms must be covered. Women also cover their hair. If you forget to bring a headscarf, you can buy one at the entrance of Hagia Sophia.
- Taking pictures is allowed, but don't take pictures of people praying. Also remember not to make too much noise and be respectful.
- Entrance to Hagia Sophia Mosque is free of charge. Those who wish can make a donation.
Entrance, Tickets & Tours to Hagia Sophia
How to get to Hagia Sophia?
From Sultanahmet: Hagia Sophia is centrally located along the Sultanahmet Square. It is located opposite of the Blue Mosque.
From Taksim: Take the funicular F1 to Kabataş. At Kabataş Station, take the tram T1 and go 7 stops to Sultanahmet Station. From here, Hagia Sophia is just 3 minutes away.
Frequently Asked Questions about Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia is located in the heart of Sultanahmet, the Old City of Istanbul. It is situated along the Sultanahmet Square, across the Blue Mosque.
The first basilica construction with a wooden roof was completed in 360 and burned down in 404 during an uprising. A new building was inaugurated under Theodosius II in 415 but went up in flames again during the Nika uprising of 532, during Justinian's reign. A third and final construction of Hagia Sophia was ordered immediately afterwards and inaugurated on December 26, 537.
Hagia Sophia is Greek and means Holy Wisdom.
Yes, admission to Hagia Sophia Mosque is free of charge for all visitors.
Since July 2020, Hagia Sophia serves a Muslim place of worship.
Historical Facts & Info about Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) experienced almost the entire history of Constantinople and became the symbol of the Golden Age of Byzantium and the city of Istanbul.
The first basilica construction with a wooden roof was completed in 360 and burnt down in 404 in an uprising. A new building under Theodosius II was inaugurated in 415 and went up in flames during the reign of Justinian in the Nika Revolt of 532. A third and last construction of the Hagia Sophia was arranged immediately afterwards and opened on the 26th of December 537.
Until the end of the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia was used as a Greek Orthodox cathedral and was the venue for the most important ceremonies in the region. During the Latin occupation of 1204-1261, all holy relics were removed, and the church served as a Roman Catholic cathedral. Until the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Hagia Sophia was the largest Christian church in the world.
After the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror. Christian insignia were partially replaced by Islamic ones, icons were removed, and the mosaics were partly destroyed or plastered. The first great prayer service was held as a Friday prayer with Fatih Sultan Mehmet on June 3, 1453. During this period, a prayer niche facing Mecca, four minarets, a cistern, a medrese and a courtyard were added.
In 1934, eleven years after the founding of the Republic of Turkey, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum. In 1985, the structure was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Following a decree in July 2020, it was decided to transform the mosque into an active mosque and rename it Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque.
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