I remember standing beneath the centre of the magnificent dome of the Aya Sofya as a child, and realising for the first time, that the world and its history was far greater than anything my little mind could fathom. I felt terribly small and insignificant, smaller than the smallest sweeping ʾalif in gold on its great green disc.
The Aya Sofya, or Hagia Sophia, is enormous. Gigantic. Overwhelming. Built between 532 and 537 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the Aya Sofya would be the world's largest cathedral for the next thousand years. The height of the domed ceiling is exaggerated by the flight of pigeons and sparrows that have wandered inside, and the chains that hold the low-hanging, heavy chandeliers seem to disappear in the distance.
When Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the great church was transformed into a mosque. Mosaics were plastered over, Arabic calligraphy flowed in, and minarets, minber and mihrab were added. The architecture of the Aya Sofya (now a museum) is so distinctive with its massive dome that seems to float above its square base, that I'm surprised I never made the connection between it and the majority of Istanbul's other mosques. I was recently told that the Sultan was so impressed by the Aya Sofya, both structurally and aesthetically, that he had the city's future mosques based on the former church. How this escaped me, I will never know, because when I look at the Blue Mosque, Yeni Camii or Rüstem Paşa Camii, the similarities are as plain as day.
As a chaperone on a school field trip, I only managed the one quick sketch and few photos in this post— I need to go back. I have been to the Aya Sofya dozens of times in my life. I feel I know it intimately like an old friend and yet, I've never lost that feeling of experiencing its majesty for the first time. Twenty-four years later, I still feel unbearably and wonderfully small when I look up at that scalloped golden dome. Though the sun has risen and set nearly nine thousand times since I first stepped foot on the marble floor, smoothed by countless feet throughout history, the light inside feels magically unchanged.
The Aya Sofya Museum is open every day except Monday, from 9:30 to 16:30.
Entrance fee is 20 Turkish Lira.