Istanbul has the unique distinction that it has served as the capital of both the Christian and Islamic worlds. From the time of Constantine until the advent of Islam, the patriarch of Constantinople nominally ruled over the vast majority of the world’s Christians. From the time of the Ottoman conquest of the city until the end of World War I, the sultan at Istanbul was effectively the supreme leader of the Islamic caliphate. No building in the world better represents the shared architectural heritage of Christianity and Islam than the Hagia Sofia. It has served as both a church and a mosque, and both the Byzantines and Ottomans have left their own unique stamp on it. The Hagia Sofia was the blueprint from which most other major mosques of the Ottoman Empire were later copied. Since the early 20th century the Hagia Sofia has been neutralized as a museum and is a popular attraction for both visiting Christians and Muslims alike. The Hagia Sofia is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While Rome wasn’t built in a day, its successor, Constantinople, almost was. When the Roman emperor Constantine set out to move the imperial capital from Rome in the early 4th century, Byzantium was little more than a provincial town descended from an ancient Greek city-state. In 330 AD the town was renamed Constantinople and a massive building program bagen. Within a few decades it was one of the empire’s largest cities. Around the same time that the capital was moved, Christianity was officially legalized by Constantine. As home to both the emperor and one of the five senior patriarchs of the Church, Constantinople became one of Christianity’s most important religious centers.
During the early 6th century, the emperor Justinian I renewed the imperial commitment to the patriarchate by building the Church of Hagia Sofia, the largest and most spectacular church that had yet been constructed. The Hagia Sofia, which for many centuries was grander than any other Christian structure in the world, even in Rome or Jerusalem, represented the high point of Byzantine architecture. It would later become a protoype of architectural methods that would be copied throughout the Middle East, both in churches and mosques.
In the mid-7th century, armies swarming out of the Arabian Peninsula suddenly brought the Byzantine into contact with the newly-born Islamic world. Within a few decades following the death of Muhammed, virtually all of the Byzantine possessions in the Middle East and North Africa were swept away. Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria were all taken. Of all of the eastern patriarchates, only that of Constantinople remained in Christian hands. It would remain so for another eight hundred years. But in 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered the city after a two-month siege. Constantinople, the last surviving remnant of the two-thousand year old Roman Empire, fell and was renamed Istanbul.
Fortunately, the Ottomans had the foresight to preserve some of the best of the city’s Byzantine architecture. While the Church of the Holy Apostles was torn down to make way for the new Masjid Fatih, the Hagia Sofia was simply too magnificent to be demolished; so the Ottomans appropriated it, added some minarets, and put is to use as a mosque. It remained so until the early 20th century when it was neutralized and renovated as a museum. It is a testament to the original Byzantine construction that this fifteen-century old building is still in good condition and still in active use, and remains to this day one of Istanbul’s most popular tourist sites.
For the better part of a thousand years, the Church of Hagia Sofia in Constantinople was the largest and most spectacular building in the western world. The original structure was demolished in the 6th century and replaced by a magnificent domed structure in which no expense was spared. The Hagia Sofia is considered to be the penultimate example of Byzantine construction. The staggered walls give the outer structure an almost stepped appearance, with the church’s general symmetry and sloped roofs adding to the pyramidic illusion. The towering, red-brick entranceway is reminiscent of Islamic architectural styles. The whole is crowned by a great silvered dome with a golden spire built after an earlier dome was destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th century. Four towering white minarets were added to the complex in the 15th century after the Hagia Sofia was converted to use as a mosque.
The interior of the church is the architectural equal of the exterior. Marble in staggering quantities was pillaged from other cities of the empire for its construction. One of the most striking features of the Hagia Sofia is the tremendous number of windows in the place. Few other churches built in the early Middle Ages could boast such an abundance of natural light. Another feature that really makes the interior stand out are the wall-to-wall paintings and mosaics that cover nearly every square inch of surface area. Interestingly, the vast majority of the interior artwork survived the Islamic occupation and mosque period. Today the church consists mostly of open space used as a museum for the display of religious art and artifacts.
The Church of Hagia Sofia is located in the heart of Istanbul’s Old City right outside of the walls of the Topkapi Palace. It has served as a museum for the better part of the last century, and is open to Muslims, Christians and anybody else who cares to peek inside. It is open Tuesday through Sundays from 9:00am-5:00pm. The cost of admission is US$4.50. Web: https://goturkey.com (official tourism website of Turkey)
As home to the seat of the Islamic Caliphate for well over four centuries, it is not suprising that Istanbul boasts more major Islamic sites than any other sites except perhaps Cairo in Egypt. In addition to the Hagia Sofia, Istanbul is also home to the following major mosques: the Masjid Sultan Ahmet; the Masjid Suleymaniye, Mimar Sinan’s masterpiece; the Masjid Eyup Sultan, where one of the Companions of the Prophet is buried; the Masjid Fatih; the Masjid Yeni; the Masjid Beyazit; and the Masjid Ortakoy. Istanbul is also home to one of the world’s largest royal residences: the Topkapi Palace, one of the largest and most lavish in Muslim history (and home to the sacred trusts, the world’s greatest collection of important Muslim artifacts). There is also the more modern Dolmabahce Palace, where the sultans resided during their last few years in power.