Hagia Sophia is one of the most important structures built in history. This 1500-year-old structure is a must-see for those who come to Istanbul. However, there are many people who want to get to know Hagia Sophia even though they cannot come to the city. As a local guide, I would like to introduce Hagia Sophia with photos taken from inside and outside.
First of all, it should be noted that I took these photos between 2016 and 2020. Since Hagia Sophia was a museum during this period, the travel route was just as it appears in the photos.
However, as of July 2020, Hagia Sophia was turned back into a mosque after 85 years. Now, the entrance to Hagia Sophia is through the old exit door, where the mosaic of Emperors Constantine and Justinian is located.
For this reason, those who visit Istanbul today will see the works at the end of the article as the first thing. However, I did not change the article, since it is more convenient to tell the history of Hagia Sophia through the old walking route.
In the first half of the article, you can see the interior photos of Hagia Sophia, starting with the ruins in the courtyard. On the other hand, at the end of the article, you can see the exterior photos of Hagia Sophia taken from different angles.
Interior Photos of Hagia Sophia
Interior photos of Hagia Sophia take us on a journey through time. Each artifact inside the building dates to a different period and allows us to witness the history of Hagia Sophia spanning 1500 years.
But first of all, there is something to be noted that Hagia Sophia was built three times in history. Nothing remains of the First Hagia Sophia. The remains of the Second Hagia Sophia (see picture below) can still be seen. The current structure is the third Hagia Sophia.
1. Remnants in the Courtyard
When you enter the courtyard of Hagia Sophia, you will see some columns and ruins in the garden. These remnants in the courtyard belong to the second Hagia Sophia (Theodosius II period).
2. Outer Narthex
When you enter the Hagia Sophia, you will meet the Outer Narthex (exterior corridor) first. Here are detailed information panels. Here you can see how the first and second Hagia Sophia looks from the sample pictures.
3. Imperial Gate
When you pass the inner corridor you will see the Imperial Gate. Although the magnificent dome of Hagia Sophia encourages you to enter the main space immediately, don’t forget to look at the magnificent Byzantine mosaic above the Imperial Gate.
4. Emperor Leo VI Mosaic
Throughout 900 years of church history, Byzantine emperors entered the church through “Imperial Gate”. The mosaic of Emperor Leo VI, also known as “Leo the Wise”, can be seen above the entrance door.
Leo bowed to the ground to show his respect to Jesus sitting on the throne. This mosaic is one of the most beautiful depictions of Christ Pantocrator “Ruler of All” in Istanbul. Virgin Mary can be seen on the left medallion whereas Archangel Gabriel is placed on the right medallion.
5. Ground Floor of Hagia Sophia
In this photo, you can see the view of the ground floor of Hagia Sophia from the Empress Lodge. Empress Theodora, the wife of the famous ruler Justinian, used to watch the ceremonies from here.
This photo is useful for viewing the interior of Hagia Sophia from a bird’s eye view. You notice more details as you look carefully at the picture. Since Hagia Sophia has a history of 1500 years, it has reached the present day with traces from all centuries.
6. Columns of the Temple of Artemis
Since Hagia Sophia was built in a record time of 5 years, it is rumored that there are many reused materials in its construction. According to some historians, the 8 big columns in the center of the building are the columns of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus.
We will never know if certain things about medieval history are true. However, if some of the Hagia Sophia’s materials were gathered from famous structures such as the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, even the rumor of this is exciting.
7. View of the Empress Lodge
Above, I shared the view of the main section from the Empress Lodge. Now I am sharing the view of the Empress Lodge from the ground floor. Throughout history, Byzantine empresses watched the ceremonies from here.
8. Seraphim Angels
The six-winged Seraphim Angels, believed to have guarded the door of heaven, are on the pendantives all over the dome. The angels’ faces were closed due to Islamic rules during the Ottoman period. It was opened during the restoration works that started in Hagia Sophia twenty years ago and still continues.
It was difficult to believe that Hagia Sophia was a man-made structure in the years it was built. For this reason, Hagia Sophia was associated with various legends throughout the Middle Ages. According to a myth, the Angels of the Seraphim were protecting Hagia Sophia and Constantinople.
9. Center of Hagia Sophia
Since Hagia Sophia remained a church for 900 years and a mosque for 500 years, it bears the traces of both Christian and Muslim art. This hybrid culture will offer you many exciting shots when taking interior photos of Hagia Sophia.
The colored marbles in the center of Hagia Sophia represent Omphalion, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. While the patriarch crowned the emperor, his wife would follow the ceremony from the empress lodge upstairs.
10. Virgin Mary and the Child
The Virgin Mary and the Child on the eastern wall where the altar stood in the past is the oldest Byzantine mosaic of Hagia Sophia. Pictured Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in her arms. Mosaic dates from the beginning of the 9th century.
If the Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century, one wonders “Why there are no older mosaics in it?”. The reason for this is the emperor Leo III, who ordered the destruction of all mosaics within the borders of the Byzantine Empire. This period is called Byzantine Iconoclasm.
Iconoclastic Controversy lasted about a century and the early Byzantine mosaics were completely destroyed. This period, which undermined Byzantine religious art, continued throughout the reign of Isauran dynasty. With the Macedonian dynasty seized the throne, the mosaics also returned.
11. Marbles of Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia was built between 532 and 537 in only 5 years and 10 months. Architects Anthemius and Isidore were under pressure from the emperor who wanted the building to be finished as soon as possible.
Architects have found ingenious solutions to some problems. For example, marble slabs were used to decorate the walls of the building. The architects divided the marbles of Hagia Sophia in half and used the veins inside as a symmetrical decoration element.
There are many surprises like this in Hagia Sophia. Taking a guided tour of Hagia Sophia helps you learn these details that are overlooked at first glance.
12. Marble Jars
One of the ancient works that contributed to the interior decoration of Hagia Sophia is twin Marble Jars brought from the ancient city of Pergamon. Ottoman sultans also made various attempts to decorate Hagia Sophia. Suleiman the Magnificent‘s grandson Murad III brought these marble jars from the Aegean coast.
13. Upper Gallery
Visitors to Hagia Sophia may be impressed by the beauties on the ground floor and fail to realize that there is an upper floor. However, Upper Gallery offers you great opportunities to take amazing interior photos of Hagia Sophia.
While visiting the upper floor, you can see how much Hagia Sophia was affected by earthquakes over time. Some of the columns on the upper floor are bent so visibly. Of course, not only earthquakes but also the enormous pressure created by the central dome has an effect on this.
14. Marble Door
When the Hagia Sophia was a church, Synod Meetings were held behind Marble Door, which was considered sacred. Two of the First seven ecumenical councils in history were held in Constantinople. We know that the first Council of Constantinople gathered at Hagia Irene during Theodosius I.
It is believed that the second Council of Constantinople, which convened during the Emperor Justinian, was held in the Great Palace or Hagia Sophia. If this council was held in Hagia Sophia, it must have been gathered in the section behind this door.
15. Deesis Mosaic
Deesis Mosaic depicts The Last Judgment. In the middle there is a Jesus depiction decorated with the magnificent shades of blue and yellow. To the right of Jesus stands Virgin Mary and to the left is John the Baptist.
John and Mary are sorry for people’s sins and ask for forgiveness on their behalf. This mosaic dating back to the 13th century is the most magnificent Byzantine art in Istanbul today.
16. Emperor John II and Eirene
Emperor John II and Empress Eirene had made great donations to the Christians in Byzantium. The Patriarch of Constantinople, the leader of the Eastern Church, ordered this mosaic to describe their donations.
The mosaic shows John II of the Komnenos dynasty and his wife Eirene, the daughter of the Hungarian king. On the far right is their son, crowned prince Alexios.
17. Constantine IX and Empress Zoe
The mosaic of Constantine IX and Empress Zoe is the most interesting mosaic in Hagia Sophia. Empress Zoe’s father had died without leaving an heir. By law, whoever Zoe married would become emperor.
Zoe had been married three times, with her first two husbands dying before her. According to a rumor about this mosaic, the face of Constantine IX in the mosaic was added by scraping the face of the ex-husband.
18. Runic Inscriptions
In the Byzantine Empire there was a special royal unit called the Varangian Guard. The soldiers of this unit were predominantly of Scandinavian origin. It is believed that the Runic Inscriptions on the second floor of Hagia Sophia were made by one of these soldiers.
19. Emperor Justinian and Constantine
The most important Roman emperors in the history of Istanbul were, of course, Constantine and Justinian. In this mosaic, both present their works to Mary and Jesus.
Constantine the Great presents the magnificent city of Constantinople, built in 6 years. Justinanus presents Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the world at the time of its construction.
One of the most important features of Emperor Justinian and Constantine mosaic is that it was made in the 10th century. These two emperors were respected at the highest level, although centuries had passed since their deaths.
20. Monumental Fountain
Monumental Fountain was added during the Ottoman period. Hagia Sophia was the most important church of Byzantine Constantinople and the most important mosque of Ottoman Istanbul. Both civilizations paid utmost importance to this historical structure.
In this article, I mostly shared photos of Hagia Sophia that describes the Byzantine period. However, there are also many works of art added during the Ottoman Empire and create a beautiful harmony.
Exterior Photos of Hagia Sophia
There are excellent spots in different parts of the Sultanahmet district to take pictures of Hagia Sophia from the outside. In the lines below, you can see the exterior photos of Hagia Sophia and find clues about these photo locations.
1. Panoramic Picture of Hagia Sophia
There are great hotel terraces in Sultanahmet to take panoramic pictures of Hagia Sophia. I took this photo from the roof of Seven Hills Hotel. However, there are other hotels with beautiful views, such as the Hotel Arcadia Blue and the Four Seasons Hotel at Sultanahmet.
2. Hagia Sophia from Sultanahmet Park
The most suitable place to take photos of Hagia Sophia from outside is Sultanahmet Park. You can photograph Hagia Sophia from various angles by walking around the fountain in the park. The most beautiful photos can be taken in the late afternoon.
3. Hagia Sophia Square
Hagia Sophia Square is one of the suitable places to try street food in Istanbul. You can find freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, sweet corn and roasted chestnuts in the square, which is full of tourists at any time of the day. This lively environment will give you the opportunity to take beautiful photos of Hagia Sophia from the outside.
In this article, I shared interior and exterior photos of Hagia Sophia. However, if this subject interests you, you can find more information about Hagia Sophia on this site.
If you are going to visit Istanbul, the regularly updated Hagia Sophia opening hours article may be of use to you. In addition, you can find the latest state of the Byzantine mosaics inside the building in the Hagia Sophia mosaics article.
Written by Serhat Engul