Istanbul is a pretty wild city. It is a maze of streets with seemingly unending traffic madness and navigational mayhem. It is the only city in the world that is on two continents, it spans both Asia and Europe. It also has some of the best food in the world and a lot to see. There are tons of tourist attractions from the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace to the beautiful and world famous Hagia Sofia-which was a finalist for the new seven wonders of the world vote that was held in July.
Hagia Sophia is a former patriarchal basilica, later a mosque and now a museum. Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. It was the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years, until the completion of the Medieval Seville Cathedral in 1520.
The current building was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and was in fact the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site (the previous two had both been destroyed by riots). The Church contained a large collection of holy relics and featured, among other things, a 50-foot silver iconostasis. It was the patriarchal church of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the religious focus point of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire for nearly 1000 years.
In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and Sultan Mehmed II ordered the building to be converted into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels were removed, and many of the mosaics were eventually plastered over. The Islamic features – such as the mihrab, the minbar, and the four minarets outside – were added over the course of its history under the Ottomans. It remained as a mosque until 1935, when it was converted into a museum by the secular Republic of Turkey.
Today, it remains a huge tourist attraction and a very interesting place to visit at that. It is the centerpiece of Istanbul’s tourist area and visible throughout most of the city. From where I stayed in Sultanhamet, it was a quick walk to the Hagia Sofia and all of the other main attractions. While I am in complete agreement that the Hagia Sofia was not worthy of being a new wonder of the world, it is certainly very cool and well worth a visit to take a break from the craziness that is Istanbul.