The Basilica of the Holy Wisdom or Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) is the major Byzantine building still standing in Istanbul. It is one of the finest and most important architectural creations in the world. The church is actually the third on the site and was, at its completion in 537, the architectural wonder of its time. When Emperor Justinian first entered the immense church, he exclaimed "Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such a work. Oh Solomon! I have outdone you!" At first the basilica was known as the Great Church because it was the largest at the time. Later it became known as Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia in Greek, a name attributed to Christ by theologians of the 4th century.
For almost a thousand years the Hagia Sophia as Imperial Church of the Byzantine court impressed the strength and wealth of the Byzantine emperors upon their subjects. The central space has an area of 7,000 square metres. The dome rises to 56.6 metres at its apex and has a diameter of 32.37 metres. In its heyday as the Imperial Cathedral, Hagia Sophia was served by 80 priests, 150 deacons, 60 subdeacons, 160 readers, 25 cantors and 75 doorkeepers.
The worst desecration occurred in 1204, when the basilica was ransacked by the Latin soldiers during the Fourth Crusade and converted into a Catholic Church. The Latins also robbed many of the sacred relics that were kept in the church. Dandolo, the Venetian Doge and leader of the gang, was buried here and his tomb can still be seen, although tradition tells us that in 1453 his tomb was opened and his bones were thrown to the dogs. In 1261 the Hagia Sophia returned to the control of the Orthodox Patriarch. On May 29, 1453, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, captured Constantinople, stopped the looting of the Hagia Sophia and took possession for Islam of the greatest religious edifice in the world. New elements of decoration made their entrance, such as the large alabaster urns that were added by Sultan Murat III (1574-1595) and had been taken from Pergamon (Bergama). In the 19th century the mosque was adorned with a set of large calligraphic medaillons bearing the names of God, Muhammed and the four caliphs which were the work of the famous calligrapher, Kazasker Mustafa İzzet Efendi. The Aya Sofya continued to function as a mosque until 1934 when Ataturk proclaimed it a museum.
Here are the photos of the Aya Sofya, click on the thumbnails to see greater pictures
The few remaining mosaics of the Hagia Sophia are exquisite work of arts and a remnant of the glory and splendor of the Byzantines. Among them, especially the mosaic representing Christ between the Empress Zoe and the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and the one with the Virgin and Child flanked by Emperor Johannes Komnenos II and Empress Irene are of great beauty. When your visit is finished, don't forget to look back at the exit gate where another masterpiece of Byzantine art looks down on you, namely a mosaic in which Constantine the Great offers the City of Constantinople to Mary and Christ and Justinian I offers them the Hagia Sophia.