When in Istanbul .....Aya Sofya

After spending our first day in the more modern part of Istanbul, it was time to follow the tourists to Sultanahmet, the historic neighbourhood on the other side of the Golden Horn River. It was home to Byzantine emperors and Ottoman Sultans and today it is the most visited area in Istanbul with the highest concentration of historic sights. Standing on a Friday afternoon on Sultanahmet Square with the Aya Sofya on the one side and the Blue Mosque on the other, listening to the extremely loud call to prayer over the loudspeakers is one of those travel experiences that I will always treasure.

The massive dome of the Aya Sofya was our first stop in this part of the city. This Greek Orthodox church was built in 527 on the remains of two earlier versions of the Aya Sofya and its dome is so big that it was only matched in size by anything almost a 1000 years later (there is graffiti on the walls that can be dated back to Viking mercenaries serving the emperor in the 900's!). What impressed us most was that this massive building was completed in only seven years!! The church reigned as the greatest church in Christendom but was ransacked by Crusader armies in 1204 and a lot of the church treasures are now in St Marks Basilica in Venice. In 1453 the Turks finally conquered Constantinople and transformed the church into a mosque. Most of the Christian paintings were removed or covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery, but depictions of Jesus and Mary were left intact. For the next 500 years the building was used as a mosque until the 1920’s when the Turkish president, Ataturk secularized the building and turned it into a museum.

On a personal note, I found it difficult to relate to the building. On the walls a Madonna and Child image was flanked by huge medallions with Arabic script praising the names of Allah and Muhammad. It is amazing that the building has importance for both Islam and Christianity and that the two co-exist in this museum, but I found the building devoid of life and lacking any atmosphere. Nevertheless, I was mesmerised by its fascinating history and felt privileged to visit.

PS. On a bit of a side note, we were very happy with our hotel choice again and can really recommend it. The Hotel Armada has a wonderful rooftop terrace with views of the Blue Mosque, the Aya Sofya and the sea. A bit of an uphill hike to the main tourist area, but one has to walk off all those dondurma ice creams!

Find all my blogs about Turkey here.

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