Two not-to-be missed spots in Istanbul are the Hagia Sophia (also spelled Aya Sofya) and the Blue Mosque. They are conveniently located near each other in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, which was the heart of ancient Constantinople.
The Hagia Sophia. Without a doubt, this nearly 1,500 year old building is one of the greatest structures ever built. The great Byzantine Emperor Justinian consecrated the Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in 537 AD. It was originally a Christian church (the center of the Byzantine or Greek Orthodox church), and became a mosque in the 15th century after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople.
Byzantine Emperors were crowned here for centuries.
The Hagia Sophia became a museum in the 1930’s. Having read some of the history of the Byzantine Empire it was a thrill for me to stand in a place that has witnessed so much history and to take in the massive open space under the dome. It has undergone some modifications over the centuries to help fortify and stabilize the walls due to the weight of the dome over the nave. The main dome is 185 ft high and 104 ft in diameter. Imagine building something like this in the 6th century…
The Venetians pillaged the Hagia Sophia in 1204 as part of the very strange 4th crusade, which ended up attacking Constantinople (center of the Eastern Roman Empire) rather than defending the Holy Land. If you’ve read Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, you will recognize that the Hagia Sophia plays a role in the story.
There are a number of beautiful mosaics, a few from the 6th century and many from the 10th century onwards, many of which are on the 2nd floor. I was surprised at how the crowds visiting the Hagia Sophia thinned out when we ventured upstairs into the surrounding gallery.
Since this is THE sight in Istanbul, the lines can be long. To avoid the lines, get the Museum Pass, which is sold in the plaza near the Hagia Sophia. As of September 2012, it cost 72 TL (Turkish Lira, about 2 TL to 1 USD) and is good for 72 hours. It allows you to bypass the crowds in line for individual tickets, saves money over the individual entry fees and gives you priority entrance into the Hagia Sophia and many other attractions.
The Blue Mosque. This mosque is another common image of Istanbul and is located just to the south of the Hagia Sophia.
It is called the Blue Mosque due to the stunning blue tile work in the interior.
This is a “working” mosque, and therefore visitors are only allowed at certain times of the day around the Muslim worship services.
The Blue Mosque was built in 1609 – 1616. If you visit, wear appropriate clothing and be respectful of the Islamic faith by following the guidance/rules (taking off of shoes, women wearing a head covering, etc.). There is no cost for visiting the mosque. Take time to appreciate the artwork and architecture of this huge building.