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Visiting the Hagia Sophia was so incredibly high on my list of things to see of things to see in Istanbul that as soon as I arrived it was the first thing we went to see and has obviously made it on to my top reasons to visit Istanbul. The building was something that had always fascinated me because of its rich history and the buildings survival throughout different periods of history, rulers and religions. It is a building that, while cliche, completely encompasses the mix of east and west you expect to find in Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia is a building that is Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and Turkish and has so much history and architecture.
The first Hagia Sophia was built in 360AD and was named after Holy Wisdom. The church took on true importance during the reign of Justinian I when he decided to redesign the church to be larger and more awe inspiring than the previous incarnations of the church. The church was built out of materials from all over the Byzantine Empire including purple porphyry marble from Egypt, hellenistic columns from Ephesus and black stone from the Bosphorus and it was completed in under six years. The church is considered to have changed the history of architecture and it was the largest cathedral until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520.
The Hagia Sophia was the focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church until the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II. Sultan Mehmed then, instead of razing it to the ground (which was kind of him), converted the church into a mosque. The christian elements of the church were removed or plastered over, in terms of the mosaics, and replaced with Islamic features. While it was quite nice of him to leave the building standing he was not so kind to the citizens who had taken refuge in the church with them either being enslaved, raped or murdered.
In 1935 the Republic of Turkey converted the mosque into the museum that it is today. The carpets were removed and the mosaics and frescoes were uncovered. Today there is a small area for Christian and Muslim worship but the building itself is no longer a religious building. Today the Hagia Sophia is considered the best example of Byzantine architecture and honestly it is one of the most inspiring buildings I have ever seen. The mix of Christian and Muslim elements and the history behind this building is what makes the Hagia Sophia such a unique site to visit. There are so few buildings in this world that capture the way certain places have changed throughout time and the Hagia Sophia is one of them. You can literally trace the history of Istanbul in this building, from its humble Roman beginnings, to the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim faith, and then to modern day Turkey.