Hagia Sophia is the most precious jewel of Istanbul with its history going back 1500 years. Hagia Sophia is at the top of everyone’s list of things to do in Istanbul. In this article, you can find both the Hagia Sophia guided tour options and the necessary information for the self-guided tour.
This post is quite long as it’s an article where you can find everything about Hagia Sophia. If your time is limited and you want to find what you are looking for right away, you can browse the page from the “Table of Contents” section below.
Hagia Sophia has been a legendary structure throughout its history. Built 1500 years ago by the Emperor Justinian, the building marked a breakthrough in the history of architecture. Hagia Sophia remained the largest church of Christianity throughout the Middle Ages.
The excitement and curiosity created by Hagia Sophia continued for centuries. People took shelter in Hagia Sophia to be protected from natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms. The Byzantines crowned their emperors here and celebrated their victories.
Hagia Sophia became a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered the city. Hagia Sophia, which was a church for 900 years, remained a mosque for about 500 years. Converted into a museum in the 1930s, Hagia Sophia is one of the rare places where Christian and Muslim heritage can be seen together.
Hagia Sophia has been turned back into a mosque since July 2020. However, the Byzantine mosaics inside can still be seen. If you take a guided tour of Hagia Sophia, you can better understand the mosaics and other historical artifacts inside the building.
Guided Tour Options for Hagia Sophia
There are two options to visit Hagia Sophia with a guided tour. The first is to buy tickets online and join the group tour by meeting the guide at the entrance. The second is to visit Hagia Sophia with a private tour guide. Of course, as a third option, you can also visit Hagia Sophia yourself, and I have prepared this article to make it easier for you.
1. Skip-The-Line Tickets with Guided Tour
You need to purchase tickets online in advance to join the skip-the-line guided group tour. Those who book Hagia Sophia tickets meet with the guide at the entrance of the museum with the reference number given to them.
You enter with a group and you are given general information about the history of Hagia Sophia. If you want this option, which is cheaper than a private guided tour, you can buy your tickets from this link.
2. Private Tour Guide for Hagia Sophia
If you want to arrange a private tour guide for Hagia Sophia, you can hire one of the licensed guides waiting at the entrance of the mosque. There are guides in front of Hagia Sophia that you can pay by the hour and they will introduce you to the building in detail.
Since the Hagia Sophia visit will take an hour on average, it is not sold as a single tour by travel agencies. Hagia Sophia is part of the more comprehensive half-day and full-day Istanbul tours. For this reason, it would be reasonable to hire an hourly guide.
3. Self Guided Tour of Hagia Sophia
Of course, you can visit Hagia Sophia alone. It may even be better for you if you know enough about the history of Istanbul. You can carefully examine historical artifacts and take photos without being rushed by a tour group or guide.
If you want to take a self-guided tour of Hagia Sophia, I suggest you read this article to the end. Because in this article you can find everything about things to see in Hagia Sophia.
History of Hagia Sophia
In order to fully comprehend the place of today’s Hagia Sophia in history, it is necessary to start long before it was built, that is, the 4th century when Constantinople was founded. Because the history of Hagia Sophia is not a single period. Hagia Sophia, which is still standing today, is the third church built in the same place.
1. Emperor Constantius II
The construction of the First Hagia Sophia is attributed to Constantius II, son of Emperor Constantine the Great. We know that the first church was burned in a riot by the people of the city.
Why would the people of Constantinople set fire to their church? Of course, they had their reasons. I’d better explain it in another article. However, to give a brief explanation, it was due to the exile of the archbishop of Constantinople by the emperor Arcadius. This famous cleric’s name was John Chrysostom.
2. Emperor Theodosius II
The second Hagia Sophia was built by Theodosius II. This church, which managed to survive for about a century, was destroyed in another rebellion. This time the riot was against Justinian, the most famous emperor in Byzantine history.
This uprising, called the Nika Revolt, was one of the most important events in Byzantine history. When the second Hagia Sophia collapsed, the structure still standing today was built.
3. Emperor Justinian
The new church to be built in place of the second Hagia Sophia was very important for Emperor Justinian. He wanted to restore his reputation, which was disrupted by the Nika Revolt. For this purpose, he appointed two of the most important mathematicians of Anatolia. Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus were the most brilliant architects of the period.
Justinian’s previous church, Church of Sergius and Bacchus, was built by Anthemius. In other words, one of the architects had already proved his talents. Some historians claim that this structure, now known as the “Little Hagia Sophia”, was the pioneer of the techniques to be applied in Hagia Sophia.
Architecture of Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia abandoned the traditional basilica plan of early Roman churches. Even though Hagia Sophia had a revolutionary architecture, it also preserved the interior architecture of basilica extending from east to west.
The trademark of Hagia Sophia was the presence of a giant dome on the Roman arches in the middle of a rectangular structure. In addition, two half domes were placed around one full dome. This architectural style was unprecedented in the world.
The size of the dome created an incredible pressure on the side walls of the building. However, some of this pressure was transferred by the pendants to the supporting columns and half-domes. The pendentives on which archangels were painted were a new invention in the history of architecture.
Things to See and Do in Hagia Sophia
Here are a list of things to see in Hagia Sophia with relevant photos. In the lines below you can find a list of 17 headings of things to do in and around Hagia Sophia. This was the route to visit Hagia Sophia when it was a museum.
1. Remnants in the Courtyard
When you pass through the turnstiles and enter the garden of Hagia Sophia, you will see some columns and ruins in the garden. These remnants in the courtyard belong to the second Hagia Sophia (Theodosius II period).
If you examine the above picture carefully, you can read the emperor’s name “Theodosius” on the column of the ruined church. There are hundreds of such remains in the courtyard of today’s Hagia Sophia.
2. Outer Narthex
When you enter the Hagia Sophia, you will meet the Outer Narthex (exterior corridor) first. Here are detailed information panels. Here you can see how the first and second Hagia Sophia looks from the sample pictures.
3. Imperial Gate
When you pass the inner corridor you will see the Imperial Gate. Although the magnificent dome of Hagia Sophia encourages you to enter the main space immediately, don’t forget to look at the magnificent Byzantine mosaic above the Imperial Gate.
4. Emperor Leo VI Mosaic
Throughout 900 years of church history, Byzantine emperors entered the church through this gate. The mosaic of Emperor Leo VI, also known as “Leo the Wise”, can be seen above the entrance door.
Leo bowed to the ground to show his respect to Jesus sitting on the throne. This mosaic is one of the most beautiful depictions of Christ Pantocrator “Ruler of All” in Istanbul. Virgin Mary can be seen on the left medallion whereas Archangel Gabriel is placed on the right medallion.
5. Hagia Sophia Interior
Hagia Sophia was the most important church of the Byzantine period. However, Hagia Sophia is not the only building left from the Byzantine era. Byzantine churches which can be visited as museums today are Hagia Sophia, Chora Church (Kariye Mosque) and Pammakaristos Church (Fethiye Museum) respectively.
If you want to see the interior of Hagia Sophia as in this photo, you have to go to the empress’s lodge on the upper floor.
6. Center of Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia, which remained a church for 900 years and a mosque for 500 years, intertwined the legacy of two religions. The medallions and chandeliers added while the Hagia Sophia was a mosque are side by side with the Christian mosaics made while the Hagia Sophia was a church.
The colored marbles in the center of Hagia Sophia represent Omphalion, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. While the patriarch crowned the emperor, his wife would follow the ceremony from the empress lodge upstairs.
7. Seraphim Angels
The six-winged Seraphim Angels, believed to have guarded the door of heaven, are on the pendantives all over the dome. The angels’ faces were closed due to Islamic rules during the Ottoman period. It was opened during the restoration works that started in Ayasofya twenty years ago and still continues.
It was difficult to believe that Hagia Sophia was a man-made structure in the years it was built. For this reason, Hagia Sophia was associated with various legends throughout the Middle Ages. According to one of these, the archangels on all four sides of the dome were carrying the dome, which seemed to be hung from the sky.
8. Virgin Mary and the Child
The Virgin Mary and the Child on the eastern wall where the altar stood in the past is the oldest Byzantine mosaic of Hagia Sophia. Pictured Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in her arms. Mosaic dates from the beginning of the 9th century.
What is the Byzantine Iconoclasm?
If the Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century, one wonders “Why there are no older mosaics in it?”. The reason for this is the emperor Leo III, who ordered the destruction of all mosaics within the borders of the Byzantine Empire. This period is called Byzantine Iconoclasm.
Iconoclastic Controversy lasted about a century and the early Byzantine mosaics were completely destroyed. This period, which undermined Byzantine religious art, continued throughout the reign of Isauran dynasty. With the Macedonian dynasty seized the throne, the mosaics also returned.
9. Marbles of Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia was built between 532 and 537 in only 5 years and 10 months. Architects Anthemius and Isidore were under pressure from the emperor who wanted the building to be finished as soon as possible.
Architects have found ingenious solutions to some problems. For example, marble slabs were used to decorate the walls of the building. The architects divided the marbles of Hagia Sophia in half and used the veins inside as a symmetrical decoration element.
There are many surprises like this in Hagia Sophia. Taking a guided tour of Hagia Sophia helps you learn these details that are overlooked at first glance.
10. Upper Floor
The most interesting place on the lower floor of the Hagia Sophia is, of course, the main section. However, I strongly recommend you not to leave Hagia Sophia without seeing the upper floor. Because the most beautiful mosaics are upstairs.
Taking Photos in Hagia Sophia
One of the best things to do in Hagia Sophia is to take photos of objects with hundreds of years of history. You can take the most beautiful photos here thanks to the light that flows through the windows on the second floor.
11. The Marble Door
When the Hagia Sophia was a church, Synod Meetings were held behind Marble Door, which was considered sacred. Two of the First seven ecumenical councils in history were held in Constantinople. We know that the first Council of Constantinople gathered at Hagia Eirene Church during Theodosius I.
It is believed that the second Council of Constantinople, which convened during the Justinian period, was held in the Great Palace or Hagia Sophia.
12. Deesis Mosaic
Deesis Mosaic depicts The Last Judgment. In the middle there is a Jesus depiction decorated with the magnificent shades of blue and yellow. To the right of Jesus stands Virgin Mary and to the left is John the Baptist.
John and Mary are sorry for people’s sins and ask for forgiveness on their behalf. This mosaic dating back to the 13th century is the most magnificent Byzantine art in Istanbul today.
13. Emperor John II and Eirene
Emperor John II and Empress Eirene had made great donations to the Christians in Byzantium. The Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Eastern Church, ordered this mosaic to describe their donations.
14. Constantine IX and Empress Zoe
The mosaic of Constantine IX and Empress Zoe is the most interesting mosaic in Hagia Sophia. The reason for this is the story of the mosaic. You can listen to the story of this mosaic on private guided tours of Hagia Sophia.
15. Emperor Justinian and Constantine
The most important Roman emperors in the history of Istanbul were, of course, Constantine and Justinian. In this mosaic, both present their works to Mary and Jesus.
Constantine presents the magnificent city of Constantinople, built in 6 years. Justinanus presents Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the world at the time of its construction.
One of the most important features of Emperor Justinian and Constantine mosaic is that it was made in the 10th century. These two emperors were respected at the highest level, although centuries had passed since their deaths.
16. Ottoman Fountain
There are monumental drinking fountains in every corner of the Istanbul Old City. The most famous of these is the “Fountain of Ahmed III” at the entrance of Topkapi Palace.
This Ottoman Fountain (for ablution) in Hagia Sophia’s courtyard is a beautiful blend of classical Ottoman art and baroque architecture.
17. Tombs of the Sultans
One of the most interesting things to do in Hagia Sophia is to visit the tombs of the Sultans, located in the courtyard of the building. Some Ottoman Sultans admired the beauty and history of Hagia Sophia. Therefore they wanted to rest next to it.
Sultans who wanted to be buried in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia when they died lived mostly in the 16th and 17th century. If you visit the tombs in the courtyard of Hagia Sophia, you can observe the ornamental elements produced during the best period of Ottoman Empire.
How To Visit Hagia Sophia?
I would like to convey the necessary information to properly visit Hagia Sophia under several headings. I try to keep the information in this section as up to date as possible.
1. Where is Hagia Sophia located?
Hagia Sophia is located in Sultanahmet district. Sultanahmet is considered as the heart of Istanbul Old City and houses the most popular places to visit in Istanbul.
When you get to Sultanahmet area by tram, you can find the top tourist sites within walking distance. Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern located next to each other, only a few minutes walk from each other.
2. Hagia Sophia Opening Hours
Hagia Sophia opening hours are between 9 am and 5 pm. During these hours, it will be closed to touristic visits only for prayer times.
The opening and closing times of Hagia Sophia are the same as its neighbor, Blue Mosque. If you visit the Blue Mosque first, you can see the schedule of prayer times updated daily.
The recommended time frame to visit Hagia Sophia is between 09:00 and 11:30 in the morning. This time window is most convenient as the morning prayer is very early and the next prayer is at noon.
3. Hagia Sophia Entrance Fee
Hagia Sophia entrance fee was 100 Turkish Lira before turning back into a mosque. You do not need to buy ticket any more. Previously, I suggested Museum Pass for those who will visit Hagia Sophia.
Although the Istanbul Museum Pass is not required to visit Hagia Sophia now, it still offers a fast track advantage for the nearby museums. It can be especially useful for entering places such as Topkapi Palace and Istanbul Archeology Museums.
Written by Serhat Engul