Without doubt, the Hagia Sophia has a place at the top of Istanbul’s “must see” list. Almost 1500 years old and having served three different religions under two different empires, it is brimming with history and a magnificent legacy. Construction began on the Orthodox cathedral in 532 at the order of Byzantine emperor Justinian I, and it is regarded as the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It stood as a centerpiece for the Eastern Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years, excepting when it was a Catholic cathedral from 1204 – 1261, until being converted to a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (modern day Istanbul).
It’s the kind of place that leaves you speechless, hypnotized by the grandeur, the colors, and all of those years reverberating between the walls. I felt tiny under the massive, soaring domes, and my neck got tired quickly because I couldn’t stop staring at what was above me. The peeling, thousand-year-old paint and mosaics depicting Christian figures in that distinctive, slightly imperfect Medieval style, intermixed with the intricate writings in Arabic, beautiful Ottoman tile work. It was the perfect representation of Istanbul, the city where East and West meet.
It is truly unique seeing a mosaic of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus overlooking a mihrab indicating which wall faces Mecca. Especially given the level of conflict these two faiths have seen over the centuries, seeing the two intertwined in the Hagia Sophia was breathtaking; each of the two religions had its symbols represented throughout the structure, coexisting in harmony. The history of the two live together, complimenting one another’s beauty and coming together to tell a fascinating story.