Early bird catches the worm. Well the phrase actually means that someone will have an advantage if they do something first, or before anyone else. But then right now I mean it literally. We entered the Hagia Sophia, also the Aya Sofya at 6 AM in the morning just after the morning prayers and that is the best tip I can give you about visiting, first things first. And no, its not just because one can skip the long and elaborate queues later in the day but mostly because it is a lot more stunning in the hours of dawn, even at dusk or even in the nights, but the time of cracking dawn adds more layers to the already layered beauty, with the circling of birds over it and the sun rising slowly over the Bosphoros, the majestic Hagia Sophia glows. In subtle pastel colors against the streaked blue sky the building is a treat to all one’s senses. The Persian cats of Istanbul walk alongside the early morning visitors, yawning comfortably into the day. Approaching the once church, now mosque, from its southern side, we took a long walk looking at the beauty from two sides, seeing the plaza and the Blue mosque, before reaching the entrance. In a pale hue of pink, and a whole lot of Byzantium stone the structure is rock solid, with its minarets reaching deftly into the sky. Again up for renovation the fringes of the building were under restoration, but fortunately for us, the main building had just finished it’s round of restoration and we could enter uninhibited.
Upon entrance, and looking up, the dome of the Hagia Sophia is the most encapturing. It is 32 metres and rests on pendentives and two semidomes, one on either side of the longitudinal axis, enclosing a basilica in the central portion. The rose windows and stained glass of the churches of the 6th century remain keenly fixed to its windows but much of the interiors have elements to showcase it’s current use of a mosque. The carpet today is aligned towards Mecca, which is a tad tilted off the longitudinal axis of the Basilica. The apex, naves, auxiliary axis, aisles and porch find their placement as per the churches of that time. The most impressive part of the Hagia Sophia is it’s proportions, a trend it shares with the most impressive architecture of the world. The ratio and proportion makes the entire structure very stunning as does it’s gilded interiors. The dome though takes the cake. And its defining feature is the light quality seen and felt in it all day. There have been books written just on the light quality. When it was built under the Byzantian Emperor Justian I, the church was meant to be the Sancta Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom or the Church of the Divine Wisdom, and well it did make me a whole lot wiser, on architecture yes, and other things too. Bet that’s what wonder does to people.
On it’s part Sophia has had a turbulent history of its own, (the price one pays for wisdom) first ordered to be built by Constantine I in 325 on the site of a pagan temple, it was consecrated by his son Constantius II, following a damage by fire during the riots in 404, then rebuilt enlarged by Constans I, redecorated in 415 by Theodosius II, burnt again in Nika ressurection in 532 before being replaced by what we see today, that was rebuilt in 6 years and finished in 537. A subsequent earthquake in 558 damaged the dome with further partial collapses requiring reinforcement of the structure time and again. In 1204 it was looted by the Venetians and the crusaders of the Fourth Crusade. After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople by Mehmed II it was repurposed as a mosque with the addition of a minaret, a mihrab and a minbar, the essential elements of a mosque. Bayezid II is said to have added the red minaret, a white minaret, and Sinan is said to have designed identical minarets on the Western side. In 1934 the extremely progressive Turkish President of the modern secular Republic of Turkey, also the father of Turkey, Ataturk is said to have secularised the building making it a museum. In 1985 the structure and its peripheries were listed as the UNESCO world heritage site including an area of Istanbul called Sultanahmet that includes more places of historical significance. In 2020, President Erdogen made a highly controversial decision of converting the museum into a mosque, and today it is used for daily prayers. The Christian imagery in the mosque are partially covered by curtains but luckily haven’t been felled.
There is just one Hagia Sophia, the Byzantines, so well known for their domes did not replicate the dome of the Hagia Sophia ever again. The Byzantine techniques of mozaic art, inclduing the tilting of Tesserae and the turning of gold cubes can be seen here, showcasing a vast preoccupation with light and contributing greatly to the light quality in even badly lit spaces like that of the vestibule and the gallery. Linearism takes a huge step forward here. A masterpiece in architecture the Hagia Sophia remains one of the best loved buildings in the modern world. With a Blue mosque in front of it, the two share an enormous plaza that holds the Hurrem Sultan Hamami, the Hamman built by for Hurrem Sultan, the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The Ottomans have such cherubic titles for themselves that inspire me to choose one for myself ;). The fountains in the plaza are very beautiful and relaxing making the perfect stop for us to fix our drawing sheets and sketch. The stunning Topkapi Palace built by the Ottomans in the 17th century lies on one side, while the Hippodrome lies on the other. The Hagia Sophia mansions right behind are now luxury hospitality spaces run by the Hilton hotels. The Basilica Cistern built in 476, lies to the North-West of the Hagia Sophia, it is the largest of the several cisterns built by the Romans to store water, that lie under the city of Istanbul. Used as a gallery today, the Cistern is quite a find, even for a well-seasoned traveler. The lighting for the gallery is exquisite and the management has left a little water in the cistern to give the visitor a feel of how the cistern functioned as we tread on the rails. Like any place of water that grants wishes, flipping a dime in the Basilica Cistern grants a wish or two, well let’s see about that, only time can tell! The poor Medusa and her head is still out there for all to see, must’ve had some effect on the Emperor and his people to cast her head or rather heads in stone!!
The Obelisks fixed in the Hippodrome area were looted from the Egyptians, well it seems like one man’s hard work is another man’s loot, and then history just seems to be repeating itself, all over the world. There is no building that has been as battered as the Hagia Sophia, through time, through generations, yet it stands tall, not just pretty but extravagantly beautiful with no peer. Its cultural additions and subtractions do not seem to matter to it at all, since it is just at peace being phenomenal. Peace is phenomenal indeed. The sight of silhouetted birds flying over the Hagia Sophia cuts a stunning experience. And that happens any time of the day, albeit more beautiful when the sun’s inclined in the hemispheres at sunrise or sun set. The azzans or the call for prayer are heard quite often, but the average Turk does not seem to be too frazzled going about his day and his prayers in a very matter-of-fact fashion. Sitting by the Hagia Sophia one can see the reach of this building, grabbing attention of people from all over the world. Grabbing some Simit, warm toasted bagels with butter, cream cheese or chocolate, or kumpir, the baked potato with tons of toppings, or the dondurma, the turkish icecream, fills the stomach as one gazes at the Hagia Sophia and time stands till. Beauty is vastly inspiration and there is no dearth of that at the Hagia Sophia. Visiting the Hurrem Sultan Hamam and seeing the use of the building, Mimar Sinan Building was truly an exquisite experience too. The dimensions of the dome, the measure of the space against one’s body and one’s soul is what makes architecture. The quality of elevating not just a space but also the senses and the intelligence of man is what good architecture does, and should try to do. In the 6th century and then in the 16th century, the sensibilities of people of the time seem very varied, in terms of ratio or proportion but the feasibility never seems to have mattered. They rose above the ordinary, crafting something truly extraordinary, without the extraordinary tools that we have today. It is absolutely awe-inspiring.