Istanbul Part II: Hagia Sophia… or Aya Sofia? Or Ayasofya? How many names can one building have?

by Heidi Obermeyer

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One of the strange side effects of all this conquering and exploring we humans are these multi-use buildings that have developed over centuries. Aya Sofia (or Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, or…) is a church-turned-mosque-turned-museum whose strange changes over a couple empires and several religions make it an interesting visit and a must-see for anyone traveling to Istanbul.

We made it our first stop after seeing how massive the ticket line got in the afternoon on our first day. We got up early and were in line about ten minutes before the ticket booths opened but still waited for about 20 minutes. We bought the 2-day Istanbul museum pass for 72 lira (~$35) which ended up being a great fit for us. Next time I would probably do one of the smaller museums first, since the long line at Aya Sofia is just for buying tickets, not for entering the museum itself. That way one could leisurely enjoy the smaller museum (which will probably be completely empty, as the Mosaic Museum was for us when we visited in the early morning) and then skip the line of people baking in the sun in front of Aya Sofia when you want to go there.

Katelyn and I got the audio guide, which I would say was a good decision for an additional 7 lira (~$4). There’s tons of cool stuff inside Aya Sofia- the largest pieces of calligraphy in the Islamic world, amazing mosaics of a variety of religious figures, emperors  and saints, and various locations of significance to the coronation ceremonies of Byzantine Emperors. If I remember correctly (I’m no expert in Turkish history) once the Ottomans rolled in, Aya Sofia got turned into a mosque and then all kinds of spaces for the Sultan were built too, including a private prayer area. Eventually everyone must have realized what a historical gold mine they were sitting on, because nowadays Aya Sofia is a museum only, with built-in gift shops and an over-priced café as part of its latest reincarnation.

Aya Sofia was a nice first stop because it gave us an introduction to a good chunk of the history of Istanbul, since it has (amazingly) been around for most of it- construction began on the building in 527 A.D.! Another plus is that the place is so big that even though there’s hoards of tourists inside at any given moment (including tons of tour groups- I have never seen as many tour groups anywhere else as I did in Istanbul) you still have some breathing space and can check out the major highlights without too much hassel.

Coming up next- The New (ONLY 400-year-old) Mosque and its surroundings, including the Grand Bazaar, where loads of shopping went down over the course of our 5-day trip. By the end we were fairly ruthless hagglers, or at least reasonable-price-establishing ones. 🙂

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