Europe, Turkey

Istanbul’s greatest Byzantine remnant: Aya Sofia

No Comments 25 November 2010

Istanbul’s greatest Byzantine remnant: Aya Sofia

In September 2002 the Monkey fulfilled one of his longstanding dreams: visiting the magnificent Aya Sofia in Istanbul, Turkey. Words and even photos fail to depict the sense of wonder at this ancient, incomprehensibly enormous church/mosque/museum. A real treat.

Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey
The Monkey at Istanbul’s amazing Aya Sofia. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian I in 532, designed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, and built in just five years, the Church of Aya Sofia (Divine Wisdom) is one of the world’s most important and awe-inspiring buildings. Despite its stocky outward appearance, the interior is vast and surprisingly airy. Aya Sofia was the most important Byzantine church, a symbol of the New Rome’s power and prestige. About 20 years after it was completed, the dome collapsed. Modifications by Isidorus the Younger resurrected the dome and gave the church the approximate appearance it has today (minus the minarets!).

Interestingly, Aya Sofia also served, albeit briefly, as a Catholic church from 1452-1453. The confessional conversion was made as a last-ditch effort to convince fellow Christians from mainland Europe to raise another crusade and come to the aid of the ailing Constantinople. The ploy achieved only minimal results, and in 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Mehmet the Conqueror ordered the conversion of the church to a mosque, and prayed there the first Friday after the conquest. The four minarets were added over time. Under the Turkish Republic, in 1934 Aya Sofia was again converted, this time from mosque to museum. Sitting at the heart of Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, Aya Sofia’s profile looms large on the city’s skyline even today.

Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey
The Monkey still can’t get over the fact that Aya Sofia was the largest man-made enclosed space in the world for 1000 years, from its completion in the 6th Century straight through the 15th Century, when the Duomo of Florence‘s Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral finally surpassed it. Here you can see just some of the tremendous open space under the 32.6 meter diameter dome and its two supporting semi-domes. The area beneath the semi-domes and dome extends to 67 by 33 meters—a fact made all the more amazing considering the space is unobstructed by columns and the structure does not resort to exterior buttresses. It was an engineering feat that took nearly a millennium to outdo, and even then, the ingenious Filippo Brunelleschi pushed his Florentine Duomo only another 7 meters in diameter!

View from Aya Sofia window, Istanbul, Turkey
Aya Sofia sits across a park from the Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmet Camii, another grandiose religious building in the heart of Sultanahmet. The Blue Mosque’s architect, Mehmed Aga, attempted but failed to surpass the structural genius of Aya Sofia. Though the Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, parallels Aya Sofia’s pattern of semi-domes supporting a full one, its dome was 7 meters smaller in diameter and had to be held aloft by four intrusively large columns that clutter the floor- and airspace below the mosque’s domes. However, the Monkey feels this is less a critique of the Blue Mosque and more a tribute to the rare genius of Aya Sofia. This is a view out one of Aya Sofia’s windows.

Interior, Aya Sofia, Istanbul, Turkey
The Monkey examines the purple porphyry marble of Aya Sofia’s columns. When the secularist Turkish Republic opted to make Aya Sofia a museum in 1934, it left some of the decor from its period as a mosque, most noticeably the giant black and gold placards of Arabic script. The Monkey wants to point out that one of Atatürk’s reforms was the “Latinization” of the Turkish language, though Arabic script remains common in Islamic religious sites and the Koran.

Aya Sofia interior, Istanbul, Turkey
Perhaps the low point of Aya Sofia’s long history was it desecration by Catholic Crusaders in 1204. These men, allegedly en route to the Holy Lands to re-establish Christendom there, stopped far short of their target and contented themselves by tearing the wallhangings and smashing then stealing the altar of this most sacred of (oops!) Christian churches. While hauling off their loot from Aya Sofia with mule teams, the Crusaders also found time to sit a prostitute on the throne of the Patriarch, where she belted out mocking renditions of Orthodox Christian music to the delight of the ransacking mercenaries. Considering this and the other looting that the Crusaders partook in around Constantinople, it is easy to see why the two churches have seldom seen eye to eye in the subsequent nine centuries.

The Monkey made off with no bounty from Aya Sofia, as a visit to this stunning architectural wonder was reward enough.

Aya Sofia over rooftops of Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey
A different view of Aya Sofia, with another ancient dome in the mid-ground. The Monkey’s friend Schlepp posed with him for a photo from this vantage point. You can see that shot in the Schlepp travel section.

This Monkey adventure has been viewed 2487 times since the 2010 website relaunch.



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71,892,808 (2008)

Land area:

770,760 sq. km.


Ankara (pop: 2,890,025; 2005)


In 2006, Turkey ranked 94th in the UNDP Human Development Index and 17th in total GDP, with a per capita GDP of $5,521.47. Public debt accounts for 38.9 percent of total GDP, while 20 percent of Turks are beneath the poverty line.

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Monkey's name:

Majmun (my-moon)

Fun fact:

About 22 percent of Turkey’s population are ethnic Kurds. Many Kurds have been pushing for the establishment of an independent Kurdistan linked with Kurdish populations in Iran and Iraq since the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The Kurdish question remains a highly contentious one in Turkish and international politics.

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