As religious buildings go, Aya Sofya in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district has seen a few career-changes in its time. Built in the sixth century as the Orthodox Cathedral of Constantinople, it was regarded as the crowning achievement of Byzantine architecture – its influence is even detectable in the design of its near neighbour in Sultanahmet, the Blue Mosque. After Constantinople fell into the hands of crusaders in 1204, it was turned into a Roman Catholic cathedral, but it reverted to its original creed when the Byzantines wrested the city back in 1261. Two centuries later, Constantinople fell again, this time to Sultan Mehmed, and the building was converted into a mosque. Aya Sofya remained thus until 1935, when the father and first president of the modern Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had it secularised and made into a museum. Accordingly, the only religious activities now permitted on its premises take place in a small prayer room allocated for its Muslim and Christian staff.
Entering the building, you are overwhelmed by both the interior’s space and its light. The huge area of floor – with rigs of small white lamps hovering just a couple of metres above it, like flattened chandeliers – gives you the feeling that you’ve wandered into a giant ballroom and the strains of the Blue Danube almost start to sound in your ears. Meanwhile, the light is such that the great dome overhead nearly seems to float free of the rest of the structure, an illusion helped by the ring of windows around the dome’s base.
There is also a horseshoe-shaped gallery reached, not by going up a staircase, but by ascending a series of flagstoned, ramp-like passageways that twist around 180 degrees at either end. After scaling four or five of those, you may begin to feel your age – I know I did. The gallery not only gives you the best vantage point for taking in Aya Sofya’s grand interior, but it features on its walls some remarkable Christian mosaics from the Byzantine past. (Now uncovered and restored, these mosaics had been plastered over when the building became a mosque, due to Islam’s prohibition on representative imagery. However, it should be noted that Aya Sofya’s mosaics suffered at the hands of Christians as well as Muslims – the crusaders who arrived in 1204 removed many of them and shipped them back to Venice, which had sponsored the sack of Constantinople at the time.)
Also worth looking out for in Aya Sofya are a pair of huge, gorgeous round urns brought from Pergamon, which were carved from two great slabs of marble. And, in the surrounding grounds, you can see some interesting pieces of bric-a-brac like these: