Our visit to Istanbul wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to some of its most legendary sites: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Old City. Located on the eastern ‘horn’ (on the European side of the city) of Istanbul, these buildings were breathtaking in their size and beauty, not to mention their grand history! In many ways, this day was the culmination of the ISM Study Tour: art, music, and worship together, woven together with layers of history and theology.
Hagia Sophia (from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία, ʺHoly Wisdomʺ), the full name being in Greek Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, ʺChurch of the Holy Wisdom of Godʺ. It is a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum. From the date of its dedication in 360 until 1453, it served as the Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople, except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Patriarch of Constantinople. The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931, when it was secularized. It was opened as a museum on 1 February 1935. The present church, the third on the site, was built between 532‐537 by orders of Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the architects being Athemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and greatly dictated the evolution of the Byzantine Rite and Ritual. The mosaics of Hagia Sophia, dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries, are some of the finest examples of Byzantine art. It was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople and the religious focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for nearly one thousand years. It is the church in which Cardinal Humbert in 1054 excommunicated Michael I Cerularius – which is commonly considered the start of the Great Schism.
In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, who subsequently ordered the building converted into a mosque. The Christian furnishings were removed and many of the mosaics were plastered over. Islamic features – such as the mihrab, minbar, and four minarets – were added while in the possession of the Ottomans. It remained a mosque until 1931 when it was closed to the public for four years. It was re‐opened in 1935 as a museum by the Republic of Turkey. For almost 500 years the principal mosque of Istanbul, Hagia Sophia served as a model for many other Ottoman mosques.
The building reputedly stands on the site of a pre‐Christian temple. It ranks, in fact, as the first church built in Constantinople. Constantine I commissioned the first Hagia Irene church in the 4th century. From May to July 381 the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople took place in the church. It was burned down during the Nika revolt in 532. Emperor Justinian I had the church restored in 548. It served as the church of the Patriarchate before Hagia Sophia was completed in 537. Heavily damaged by an earthquake in the 8th century, it dates in its present form largely from the repairs made at that time. Hagia Irene is the only example of a Byzantine church in the city which retains its original atrium. A great cross in the apse is a unique vestige of Iconoclastic art; presumably it replaced earlier decoration. The church was enlarged during the 11th and 12th centuries.
After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by Mehmed II, the church was enclosed inside the walls of the Topkapi palace. The Janissaries used the church as an armory. It was also used as a warehouse for war booty. During the reign of Sultan Ahmet III (1703–1730) it was converted into a weapons museum. It was repaired by Field Marshal Ahmed Fethi Paşa in 1846 and became the first Turkish museum. It was used as the Military Museum from 1908 until 1978 when it was turned over to the Turkish Ministry of Culture. Today, the museum serves mainly as a concert hall for classical music performances, due to its extraordinary acoustic characteristics and impressive atmosphere. Many of the concerts of the Istanbul International Music Festival have been held here every summer since 1980.
The Hippodrome was a circus that was the sporting and social centre of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today it is a square named Sultanahmet Meydanı (Sultan Ahmet Square) in Istanbul, with a few fragments of the original structure surviving. It is sometimes also called Atmeydanı (Horse Square) in Turkish. The word hippodrome comes from the Greek hippos, horse, and dromos, path or way. Horse racing and chariot racing were popular pastimes in the ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras.
To raise the image of his new capital, Constantine and his successors, especially Theodosius the Great, brought works of art from all over the empire to adorn it. The monuments were set up in the middle of the Hippodrome, the spina. Among these was the Tripod of Plataea, now known as the Serpent Column, cast to celebrate the victory of the Greeks over the Persians during the Persian Wars in the 5th century BC. Constantine ordered the Tripod to be moved from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and set in middle of the Hippodrome. The top was adorned with a golden bowl supported by three serpent heads. The bowl was destroyed or stolen during the Fourth Crusade. The serpent heads were destroyed as late as the end of the 17th Century, as many Ottoman miniatures show they were intact in the early centuries following the Turkish conquest of the city. Parts of the heads were recovered and are displayed at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. All that remains of the Delphi Tripod today is the base, known as the ʺSerpentine Columnʺ.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior. It was built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. While still used as a mosque, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque has also become a popular tourist attraction. The design of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the culmination of two centuries of both Ottoman mosque and Byzantine church development. It incorporates some Byzantine elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. The architect has ably synthesized the ideas of his master Sinan, aiming for overwhelming size. At its lower levels and at every pier, the interior of the mosque is lined with more than 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles, made at Iznik (the ancient Nicaea) in more than fifty different tulip designs. The tiles at lower levels are traditional in design, while at gallery level their design becomes flamboyant with representations of flowers, fruit and cypresses. More than 20,000 tiles were made under the supervision of the Iznik master potter Kasap Haci and Baris Efendi from Avanos (Cappadocia).
The Topkapı Palace was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for approximately 400 years (1465‐1856) of their 624‐year reign. As well as a royal residence, the palace was a setting for state occasions and royal entertainments. It is now a major tourist attraction and contains important holy relics of the Muslim world including the Prophet Muhammedʹs cloak and sword. Construction began in 1459, orderedm by Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Byzantine Constantinople. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. At its peak, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people, and covered a large area with a long shoreline. The complex was expanded over the centuries, with major renovations after the 1509 earthquake and the 1665 fire. The palace contained mosques, a hospital, bakeries, and a mint. The name translates as ʺCannon gate Palaceʺ from a nearby gate which has since been destroyed.