Following our visit to Topkapi Palace, we left the grounds through the Imperial Gate and walked directly into Hagia Sophia. We had no idea it was so close to the palace. But, it makes sense. Upon conquering the city, the Ottomans declared Hagia Sophia to be a mosque and the viziers prayed in this space each morning prior to making their way to the palace to hear requests and decree laws. The Hagia Sophia is now a museum and visitors queue up early in the morning and resist the plethora of carpet salesmen trying to get a sale by asking, ‘where you from?” and “Oh, nice city. I have a cousin who lives there.” Tim and I both found it annoying and did our best to first engage them in a polite conversation (this is not advised as they don’t leave you alone) and second, ignore them with an icy stare ahead. Once you pay your entry fee, you are free to roam throughout the museum and spend as much time as you wish taking pictures and looking at the art that remains.
Two features in mosques which caught our eye: the minbar, which is the pulpit in a mosque and the place where the imam delivers his message and the mihrab which is the niche that points to Mecca. Both of these features in Hagia Sophia are intact and stunning in construction. When the church was captured by the Ottomans, all of the mosaics were plastered over and the space was reimagined as a mosque. We made our way to the second level and got up close to the mosaics which have been gently restored but still show evidence of damage from the plaster. In comparison, the Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna Italy still glimmer and delight where these mosaics were muted and seemed a bit sad to me. The interior space is huge and the architecture is boggling; the large central dome appears suspended in space with no columns or supporting structures below.
After our visit to Hagia Sophia, we went over to the Basilica Cistern, which is just across the street. We waited about 30 minutes to pay our entry fee and then descended into the cool and very wet space underground. The basilica was constructed by Emperor Justinian in 6th Century AD and provided a water filtration system for the Palace of Constantinople as well as Topkapi Palace and into modern times. The cistern reminded us of the Pirates of Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Dark, with hundreds of roman columns illuminated by the glow of lamps in the water. And, for those who want to spend a lot of time underground, a small cafe with tables near the water. While May temperatures are pleasant, I can imagine that being in the cistern in July when temps are near 105 F eating underground is a great idea. In the northwest corner are two Medusa heads used as column supports. No one knows why the heads are here but they are pretty cool to look at.