Walk the streets of Istanbul and you will likely find your senses assaulted with myriad exotic sights, sounds and smells. But a few steps of marble, into what seemingly appears to be plain form the exterior, will take you to an entirely different world. Enter the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) cathedral in Istanbul, Turkey and you are instantly swept into a scene of hallowed serenity and sacred beauty. Built over five years from 532 AD to 537 AD it has been awing visitors ever since. Although quite ancient, Hagia Sophia continues to list among the largest covered areas in existence. Created originally as an Eastern Orthodox Church, it saw over 900 years of Byzantine emperors, grand cardinals, saints, soldiers, and worshipers. In fact, prior to its current incarnation, there were two previous great churches built on the same land, the first of which was consecrated in the year 360 AD. From Byzantium to Constantinople, eventually the land was conquered in 1454 by the Ottoman Empire and Hagia Sophia became the crowning glory of Islam. Serving as a mosque until 1934, it inspired several other of the great mosques in the Muslim world, particularly the Blue Mosque of Istanbul.
Probably the most striking feature of Hagia Sophia (inside or out) is its incredibly massive dome. Over 100 feet in diameter and 182 feet in height, this colossal structure is astonishingly held perfectly in place by a series of 40 arched windows and four pendentives. What makes this feat even more astounding is the fact that Istanbul has been continuously wracked by earthquakes since its construction in the 6th century AD, yet the building and dome have sustained relatively little damage. And it’s the windows that allow for the ethereal light that bathes the interior of the building. Although the entirety of the interior is gorgeous, regularly mentioned as being among most spectacular features are the numerous mosaics. The mosaic at the southwestern entrance is often a visitor favorite. It consists of numerous golden tiles surrounding the Virgin Mary. On her lap sits the infant Jesus and at her feet is a bejeweled pedestal. The incredible detail in the faces of each of the subjects is breathtaking, especially considering they are composed not of brush strokes but of thousands of tiny tiles.
Where glorious mosaics are not covering the walls and pillars, you will instead find marble streaked green, purple, and white. Together with the gold tiles, the decorations serve to brighten the beams of light falling through the ceiling. A significant number of other flourishes are to be found such as designs of the archangels Michael and Gabriel, images and figures of numerous saints, and grand marble purification urns. Exiting the building one is easily overwhelmed by two huge bronze doors thought to be originally part of a 2nd century BC pagan temple in Tarsus, Turkey. Over course the many centuries and the influence many people, Hagia Sophia was plastered over, repainted, redomed, redecorated, and redone. Eventually in 1943 the Republic of Turkey was formed and the newly inaugurated president decided it would be in the best interest of the historical significance of the building and the future of the people of Turkey to secularize the building. Thus, Hagia Sophia has become a majestic and wonderful public museum, there for all people of all faiths to enjoy its beauty and grandeur. This change also allowed for a significant amount of restoration, allowing visitors to see the many religious and cultural influences the structure has endured over its life. A visit to Hagia Sophia is unlike any experience you have ever had. Steeped in ancient mysteries and history it is a magical journey that is not to be missed.
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