Hagia Sophia – Musings in the Istanbul Rain

Day 1: 10th April 2011


After a sumptious lunch at Ozler, we retired to 203 because it had started raining. Spring as in all countries is marked by bare, leaf-less trees and newly blooming flowers. It is also marked by uncharacteristic rains and gloomy, cloudy skies. Travellers to London during the months of April and May will add that the gray skies (=How is it spelt again grAy or grEy..does it make a difference?) oh yea gray London skies add to the gloom.

Yes so we were in the room clicking pictures and waiting for the rains to stop. After a while we said, its going to rain for some time doesn’t mean we sit n twiddle our thumbs, we dont come to Turkey everyday (=As if!!! I wish we could, kya maze!!)

Yea so we went out on our own exploring Istanbul. Inquiries made at the reception yielded that the Topkapi Palace or Topkapi Sarayi is just 5 minutes from the hotel. So we headed out to explore.

But first things first. Thirsty explorers never make good writers or reporters. Water. From where but?? In a place with scant traces of English that too!!

Luckily for us there was a Convenience Store just opposite to our hotel (= I’m tellin you all good stuff was centred around our hotel and us!!!) So we picked up a bottle of water and also Turkish Delights which are sweets made with honey and dry fruits. My mum thought a white sweet with dry fruits resembled a sweet she used to eat from Armenia but it was not to be


Fact:  Turkish Delights or Lokum is a family of confections based on a gel of starch or sugar (=honey used mostly insetad of sugar). Premuim varieties consist of chopped dates, pistachio, hazelnuts or walnuts bound by gel. Now the shop we went to had Turkish Delights in flavours of Milk,Kiwi,Cherry+Pommegranate and Lemons (=Yummy!!)

Well we’d just landed in Turkey on a sunday so we were caught without any Turkish lira on hand. The people at the reception informed us that most change offices were closed on Sunday and it was better to get Euros changed there as compared to a bank because banks charge more commission.

So we didn’t have Lira to pay the Convenience Store lady. But she accepted euros and gave us change in Lira (=At a low exchange rate of 2TL per Euro). So we got our first Liras in hand.


Then we walked out to the main street where we saw tram lines and a tram station (=Gulhane Park). Also we could see that the skies had lifted. Right in front of us were the walls of the Topkapi Palace. It has been beautifully maintained because the Palace looks like its been cut out from another era. Also there were lot of pansies and tulips planted everywhere so the sidewalks were green and pretty.


We passed quite a few restaurants with their Menu’s displayed out and had a sales rep some out and try to bring us in.

But on learning that we were not going to eat there they left us with their menus.


The road to Hagia Sophia turns up the hill from the Topkapi Palace. On that way there were hotels, restaurants and shops selling leather items. My sister loved a goatskin jacket but its of no use in a place as hot and humid as Mumbai.

But we did have our first encounter with Turkish Kebabs (=Which are known as ‘Kebaps’). They don’t cook it the way we do in India. They have a whole load of meat on a skillet (=a stick…i love the fancy names) which keeps turning in circles. On one side is a coal-oven type thingie so the meat gets cooked in coal and gets a smoky flavour along with the juices and marinade which makes the whole thing way too tasty. When a side has browned enough, the Chef cuts pieces off (=just shaves the top layer off) and then it is served in different ways.


Also we found a change office that was open so we changed Euro to TL. There were more restaurants, shops selling tourist souvenirs, magnets, trinkelts etc etc. But we skipped all of that and came to the Sultanahmet Square where we entered the ‘Aya Sophia’.

There were two lines outside, one for people who already had a pass and for those who had to get a new pass. So we went in and charged the entry to the Credit Card. (=Aya Sophia Entrance Feesis 20TL per person quite a heavy sum)


Also there were audio guides available in a host of languages. The guy at the Audio Guide centre took one of our passports as some security (=duh what do we do with an audio guide??)

Now the Aya Sophia is a huge museum. It has a lower gallery and also an upper gallery. Plus it was a Church that was converted into a Museum in 1934. This is one of the best things that a country can do. Insteads of going into a dispute about whether it is a church or a mosque, open it to the public and preserve the heritage (=It would never work in India we’re too bothered about petty religion to see clearly)


So like our tourist brochure says, there are 50 points about which information is given in the audio guide. I’m not going to mention all the 50 we didnt see all either and the history behind it all overwhelms you especailly if you dont know much about it or you hate history. I’d prefer to settle for a guide. They know what they are talking about and often come cheaper. 😀


Giving a lot of information about the Aya Sophia is not necessary. So i’ll be detailing about the main things.


1.Historical Background

Aya Sophia was constructed as a Greek Orthodox Church in the year 360 during the rein of Emperor Constantinius. Due to riots in subsequent centuries, the church was burnt down twice. Also it had been destroyed by earthquakes, as a result of which many parts of domes were destroyed. The second church was commissioned by Emperor Theodosius II.


During the subsequent periods the walls were used to make Mosaics. During the Iconoplastic period, any Mosaic was supposed to be a form of idol worship. So Mosaics were destroyed or plastered over. In any case most of the Mosaics have stayed on for centuries pointing out to the artistic brilliance of those ages.


The Church was converted into a Mosque in 1453 when Sultan Mehmet II (=Also called Mehmet the Conqueror) laid siege to Istanbul then Constantinople and thus started an empire which would rule Turkey for decades (=Ottoman Empire)


2.Ottoman Calligraphy Plates:

After St. Sophia became ‘Ayasofya’ or a Mosque, there were gigantic circular framed disks or medallions inscribed with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali, and the two grandchildren of Mohammed: Hassan and Hussain. (Photo 2)


3. Mihrab and its Chandeliers: (Photo 3)

A Mihrab is something that is seen in all Mosque-Museums in Turkey. Islam believes that when Muslims pray, they should pray in the direction of Mecca. So a Mihrab is constructed pointing out the direction of Mecca. The Mihrab is superbly decorated with calligraphic inscriptions.

In the 16th century the sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566) brought back two colossal candles from his conquest of Hungary. They are the two pillar like posts adorning the Mihrab.


4.Imperial Loggia (Photo 4)

In earlier times, the Sultans used to pray along with the common folks coming to the Mosque. But with the spread of territories and Islam, the number of followers increased thus necessitating a special chamber where the members of the Imperial Family could pray. The outer marble has been done up delicately with intricate carvings of metal which has been illuminated brilliantly by the Museum authorities.


5.Minbar (The golden door in Photo 5) 

The Minbar is a raised speaker’s stand where an Imam (=Leader of prayer or priest) stands to deliver sermons. It is also a symbol of authority.The Minbar is usually shaped like a small tower with a pointed roof and stairs leading up to it.


6.Deesis Mosaic

The Deesis Mosaic shows Christ along with Virgin Mary and John the Baptist on the Judgement Dayshowing the pain and suffering of the humans. It is the most destroyed of the Byzantine Mosaics with 3/4th being heavily damaged but is significant for the expressions on Mary and John’s faces.


7.Other Mosaics

There are many mosaics of Virgin Mary and Christ especially one at the entrance. There are also Mosaics of the various Emperors and Empresses making donations to the Church. Significant among these is is the Mosaic of Empress Zoe because she had many marriages and thus the face of the husband in the Mosaic kept changing!! (=Talk of keeping up with the times).There are also Mosaics of various priests.


8.Other Significant Sights

  • The Hagia Sophia Library is a sight in itself. It is said to have held more than 20000 scrolls and writings.
  • Also the unique architecture is such that it allowed the Architects to put in forty windows around the base of the dome. Hagia Sophia is famous for the mystical quality of light that reflects everywhere in the interior of the nave.
  • There are also inscriptions from the Synod period dated 1166 as well as a Sarcophagus (=A funeral case for the corpse) of St Irene.
  • There are underground Cisterns that used to supply water when needed.
  • The Marble Water Jars date from the Hellenistic Period(=When the Greek influence was at its peak)
  • There is an Imperial Fountain where ceremonies used to take place. It is beautifully decorated.
  • There is a ‘Medresse’ or a religious school where children are trained to be Imams (=I hope i’m getting it right.

So after this hugely historical tour we photographed the tulips and rested our tired legs. Then we returned the audio guide (=We need our passports back!!) and made our way to the Basilica Cistern.


The Hagia Sophia looks red and majestic from the outside. It is a true spectacle of art surviving through the ages and

the brilliant tactical move of converting places of worship into centres of knowledge.


Coming Up: Yerebatin Cistern, Second Day Tour,Exploring Istanbul


(p.s i hope the background was informative)


The large dome


A view from the Upper Gallery Ottoman Plates in Green


Mihrab in all its splendour


The Imperial Loggia


The Minbar is the golden entrance in the pic


The Deesis Mosaic


Hagia Sophia from outside