What is the Hagia Sophia?The Hagia Sophia was originally built to be the cathedral for the Greek Orthodox patriarch before being converted into a Catholic cathedral until Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans. The Ottomans converted the building again, this time into a mosque. Many of the building’s original Christian features were either destroyed or plastered over, with new Islamic additions being made, including the addition of four minarets. It was the most important mosque in Istanbul until the completion of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), which was built nearby in 1616, but its architecture has inspired other mosque-builders around the world. In 1931 the Hagia Sophia was closed to the public for four years, before being reopened as a museum in 1935 under the instructions of the secularist regime of Kemal Atatürk. During this time the plaster which had been covering some of the early Christian mosaics was removed and the building’s entire history was emphasized, and it was banned from being used as a place of worship. Today the question of the Hagia Sophia’s religious status is politically charged, with the current rulers of Turkey pushing for it to return to being a mosque.
What’s inside the Hagia Sophia Museum?The Hagia Sophia Museum contains religious items from the building’s Christian and Muslim eras, in addition to a handful of sculptures. However, the main draw is the building itself, its exceptional Byzantine architecture, and its glorious mosaics, many of which were hidden while the building was used as a mosque. Once you’re inside you can take the time to explore to your heart’s content.
Should I take a guided tour?There’s no official guided tour, but plenty of local guides offer tours of the Hagia Sophia. If you do your research then it’s well worth taking a tour as an expert guide can add a great deal to the visit, fleshing out what might be lacking from signs and helping to paint a picture of the importance of the Hagia Sophia to the history of Istanbul. An audio guide is also available in 12 languages including Turkish, English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Persian, Greek, Russian, and Korean, if you don’t want to hire a guide but would like some more context for what you’re seeing.
How long should I plan for a visit to the Hagia Sophia?If you’re exploring by yourself or using an audio guide then you should plan between 1 and 2 hours for a trip to the Hagia Sophia. If you’re intending to visit with a guide then you may need longer, especially if you’re going to combine the tour with a visit to the nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Topkapi Palace.