Travel Stories

How Christians and Muslims divided Hagia Sophia

The name of the temple is not associated with a woman, as it may seem, simply from Greek Aya-Sophia translates as “Holy wisdom.” Construction of the cathedral completed in just 5 years. According to historical chronicles, 10,000 people worked simultaneously on the site, and the total cost of the temple exceeded 3 annual budgets of the Byzantine Empire.

Why such a waste? Blame the will of the emperor. According to legend, on the day of the consecration of the temple, Justinian entered the cathedral with the words “Solomon, I surpassed you!”. For the emperor, it was of fundamental importance to create a masterpiece, larger than the legendary Jerusalem temple. And Justinian succeeded. The dome of the building reached 55 meters. Its diameter was 31 meters. Hagia Sophia became the largest church in the world and retained this title until the construction of the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome.

To decorate the temple in Constantinople, separate parts of antique buildings were brought. For example, 8 old marble columns were brought from Ephesus and Rome. The altar inside the cathedral is richly decorated with gold, precious stones, and pearls. The dome of the temple seemed to float in the air. Streams of light penetrated the room through 40 huge windows.

The Hagia Sophia Christian temple was until the middle of the 15th century until the troops of Sultan Mehmed II took Constantinople. Most of the churches the invaders mercilessly destroyed, but the magnificent cathedral survived. The cross on the dome replaced the Islamic crescent. Two minarets were attached to the building. Later they added two more and fortified all the minarets with stone buttresses that have survived to our days. Over the years, several tombs have been attached to the cathedral for the burial of the sultans. Christian frescoes and mosaics depicting worshipers were smeared with plaster. Fortunately, these days we managed to take it off. Visitors to the cathedral can again admire the magnificent examples of Byzantine painting.

The history of the cathedral is associated with a number of legends. Here are some of them. 

On the column in one of the premises of the temple, at a height of more than two meters, a trace resembling the imprint of a human palm is visible. According to legend, he was left by the sultan Mehmed who had captured the city, leaning on the column with his hand. Sultan was riding a horse over the corpses of defeated Christians, so the imprint turned out so high from the floor.

On the right side of the temple, there is a niche of unknown origin; If you put your ear to the wall, you can clearly hear the noise. According to legend, during the storming of the cathedral, Mehmed’s troops hid 10 thousand people there. They were led by a priest holding a bowl with the Holy Gifts in his hands. Suddenly, he, reading a prayer, went to the niche and disappeared without a trace. They say that a quiet sound from a niche is a continuation of the priest’s prayer. He is praying and waiting for the cathedral to be returned to Christians. At that moment, when the cross is lifted up above Hagia Sophia, the holy father will return to the altar and continue the interrupted service.

During the reign of the first president of Turkey, Mustafa Atatürk in 1935, the Hagia Sophia mosque was transformed into a museum. During the inspection of the cathedral were tightly boarded up doors. They did not open them, because they were afraid of the release of groundwater, the level of which is very high here and cannot be reduced. In recent years, archaeological scientists have found several secret passages and tunnels supposedly connecting the Hagia Sophia building with the Topkapi Palace, the main residence of the Ottoman Padishahs. Now there is a museum in the building of the palace. His collection has more than 65 thousand exhibits: from china, silverware and personal belongings of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire to the golden throne and staff, allegedly belonging to Moses.

In 2013, the Turkish parliament discussed the feasibility of moving the Hagia Sophia museum to the status of a functioning mosque, but the patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, opposed it. He noted that then it would be fairer to return the church to Christians, but it is better to avoid conflict and preserve its status. The Christian population of Istanbul was supported by the patriarch, and Hagia Sophia remained a museum.

Getting to Istanbul from Russia is easy. The cost of tickets for a direct flight starts from 5 thousand rubles. You can visit Hagia Sophia from 9 to 17 hours. In summer, the museum is open until 19 pm. The day off is Monday; the museum is also closed during the Muslim holy holiday of Ramadan. The entrance ticket costs 10 euros. The cathedral can be reached by ground public transport or by metro to the Sultanahmet station. If you want to visit the main museums of Istanbul on favorable terms and without a queue, buy the Museum Pass Istanbul card. It seriously makes life easier for tourists.

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