When my alarm clock woke me up, it was after less than two hours sleep; I was out of bed immediately, as I was on a mission: to re-visit the Aya Sofia which I had longed to see again for a long time after having been inside several times before. While on the local train to the city, the sun appeared above the horizon, and when I walked up the cobble-stone alleys from Cankurtaran station, slender lines above me were being converted from mere black lines pointing to the sky to proud minarets of the Aya Sofia. I was alone when I walked around the curious structure; the tourist shops were still closed, hotels were shut, and I only saw a sleepy guard with small eyes. I circled the building, knowing it would only open hours from now, and when I was done admiring the warm morning light on the old building, that had seen hundreds of thousands of sunrises, I walked up to the nearby Blue Mosque, which allowed me to see the Aya Sofia again - from a distance. From here, it was clear to see the enormous dome topping the building, the odd red-brick minaret contrasting with the three white limestone ones, the gold ornaments on the lesser cupolas, shining in the sun, contrasting with the massive walls of the main building that were still in the shade. I sat down in the sun in the courtyard of the Blue mosque, where a cat lied on my lap and played with me, until it was time to head for the entrance of the Aya Sofia, or Haghia Sophia as it is also known. I assumed arriving 15 minutes before opening time would suffice - and was surprised to see quite a crowd at the closed gate. Nevertheless, it took only ten minutes to buy a ticket and pass security - after which I hurried through the atrium and past the ruins of the original 5th century Theodosian - or second - church to explore the Aya Sofia.
Passing the outer and inner narthex, I arrived at the Imperial Gate, through which only emperors were allowed to enter - once upon a time. Democracy is once more palpable: nowadays, tour guides stand here with their flags, pushing their herd through the once-privileged Imperial Gate into the Aya Sofia. Above the Imperial Gate, a first mosaic whets the appetite: it depicts Christ Pantocrator, with Emperor Leo VI kneeling in front of him, while Virgin Mary and Archangel Gabriel are visible on both sides. Despite the scarce light here in the morning, the golden mosaic shines - and makes one want to see more. Instead of rushing in, it is better to take your time: one more look at the mosaic, and then, slowly, lower your eyes to appreciate what lies ahead. Glimpses of decorated domes and semi-domes, glass- stained windows, lanterns, gold mosaics, calligraphy hanging high on the walls - let it all soak in, and realize that no emperor ever saw it this way. Stepping through the gate brings you to the central hall - and here, you are bound to stop again. The enormity of the structure of the Aya Sofia overwhelms, and your eyes simply cannot decide where to look. I remembered that the last time, scaffolding was still obscuring part of the hall, and preventing the feeling I had now: being minuscule, in awe, with my head in my neck, looking at the gigantic dome above my head, where rays of light entered, at the medallions with Arabic calligraphy, added in the 19th century by Mustafa Izzet Efendi, the 9th century mosaic in the apse, with Virgin Mary and child, the low-hanging lanterns attached to the ceiling with long lines, the columns, domes and semi-domes... A true marvel, an architectural miracle - for a long time, this was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years, and indeed, probably the most remarkable building of its time, with the great dome over 55 metres above the ground.
As more people were filling the ground floor of the Aya Sofia, I moved to the apse, where a minbar stands where once the altar was; above it, coloured light enters through stained-glass windows, and above those, the shining golden mosaic of the Theotokos, Virgin and child, with some damaged mosaics of angels on the side. On the ceiling of the main dome, you can see cherubs - one of them now has a face again, recovered from behind the plaster. The history of the Aya Sofia is a colourful and complex one. Two older churches once stood here, when Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of a much bigger one in 532. Mosaics were added quite soon, removed and installed again, until at one time tens of millions of golden mosaic tiles must have made the interior look heavenly. It was an orthodox church and cathedral, for a while a catholic one, then a few more centuries orthodox until the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453 and converted the Haghia Sophia into a mosque, adding minarets, removing the altar, and, since people, saints, or animals cannot be depicted in Islamic art, plastered over the mosaics that once brilliantly covered the walls of the Aya Sofia. It would remain a mosque until 1931, when Atatürk decided to convert it into a museum. Gradually, some of the mosaics have been uncovered, debate is still going on whether to continue this process, as it might mean that later, Islamic art would have to be removed. After thoroughly enjoying the ground floor of this unique museum, I walked what once had been a cobble stone street to the first floor, to the galleries. From here, you have a different perspective on the central hall, the dome, and the medallions, and can really appreciate the enormous size of the Aya Sofia; on top of that, you can find the finest mosaics here. Christ Pantocrator, Virgin Mary and child, John the Baptist, Empress Irene, and several others can be seen in sublime mosaics, while you can also see others high up on the walls of the central hall: the saints John Chrysostom, Ignatius the Younger, holding Holy Bibles. Then, there is also the tomb of crusader Enrico Dandolo in the gallery, adding to the strong experience of history on this splendid gallery and in this fantastic museum which is, really, more than just that. When I walked out, looking up to yet another famous mosaic with Virgin and child, flanked by Constantine offering Constantinople, and Justinian, offering the Aya Sofia itself, to Mary, I was dazzled, and very satisfied, at having revisited this remarkable place. I cannot wait to revisit again.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Aya Sofia (Turkey). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Aya Sofia. Read more about this site.