Ok. I’m finally going to take it on. Ayasofya (Turkish). Or Hagia Sophia (Greek). (Both pronounced “EYE-uh sof -EE- uh”, meaning holy wisdom.) It’s got to be one of the most famous buildings in the world. And it’s been in my top five of places to visit for years. I still reel a little bit when I remember that I actually went there. It’s so influential, and huge, and beautiful, and old. And intact. That’s probably the most amazing thing. It was completed in 537 under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and it more or less stands as it did then.
The existing building is the third one on the same site. (The other two burned down). One of my favorite things there was this relief from the second church, innocently sitting outside the entrance in a sort of ditch. Isn’t it beautiful, kind of ancient Near Eastern in feel?
So it was built as a church by the Christian Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Then when the Ottomans conquered what was then Constantinople in 1453, they turned it into a mosque. In the 1930s, Ataturk secularized it and turned into a museum.What is striking about Ayasofya is that you can see both Muslim and Christian art in the same (formerly) religious space. The mihrab, which shows the direction of Mecca, while usually an integral part of a mosque, was tacked onto the apse here, in the same space where the Christian altar would have been.