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The best way to see Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, (Aya Sofya or Holy Wisdom) may just be the world’s most wonderful building.

Hagia Sophia, morning, March 2011 - wonderful, busy, but not wonderfully busy. Note snow on dome.

It goes without saying that at some point on your visit to Istanbul you simply have to pop in. Like many of the world’s great icons it pulls a mighty crowd, especially when the Turkish city’s Karakoy cruise terminal has a few big boats moored. In summer months it can seem like every single person on board is jostling for a moment of peace under the dome constructed in the reign of Justinian, and arguably never bettered.

I was lucky enough to make my third visit to this magnificent basilica, now a mosque, last weekend and have a few suggestions for how to make your stay here as magical as it should be.

1. Arrive early
Like so many unmissable places, arriving early is a great way to shake off the crowds and enjoy it when it first opens. On my recent trip I was the 10th person in the queue, but as those in front of me dawdled outside I was the second person in. As I passed through the Imperial Gate into the nave the sun was shining directly through the easternmost just below the dome, straight into my eyes. And there was no-one there except me and a few security guards and a marvellous moggy or two who clearly has delusions of grandeur.

Byzantine mog

2. Take a quick look all around then head upstairs
Crowds congregate around the altar and mihrab, and the circle of marble where Byzantine Emperor’s were crowned and most of all, around the mosaics. Explore in detail at your leisure, but if you’re in early take a quick look around the nave then head up through the labyrinth to the galleries, where most of the mosaics are.

3. Have John Freely in your pocket
Strolling through Istanbul by John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd is a crucial companion for your visit. It will guide you around the main sites of Hagia Sophia, give you details on the history of the building including its role in the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and take you to some lesser-known features of the place, including a hard-to-find graffito of a medieval galleon which can form a fun treasure hunt for kids. It’s great for the whole city, too.

4. Look around outside
Lots of people park their bottoms on some of the stones outside the narthex (porch) that you enter the building by to rest a while before or after a visit. Not all realise these are the remains of the original Hagia Sophia, built by Theodosius II and finished in 405. These make up a very ancient and very different building. Take a while to have a look at them, if large buttocks don’t get in the way.

If you see this then you've found Pammakaristos Church

5. See a few other churches
Hagia Sophia is not the only amazing Byzantine church in Istanbul. On a previous visit I had a wonderful visit with my family to Little Hagia Sophia a few minutes walk away. Hagia Eirene is also easy to visit, in the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, and its radically austere decoration comes as quite a contrast. If it’s open, don’t miss it. Best of all are two harder to reach and less visited Byzantine wonders, the Church of St Saviour in Chora (ask a taxi driver to go to Kariye Müzesi) and the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos (known as Fethiye Mosque and a fun walk from the Fatih Mosque, another must-visit). Both have breathtaking mosaics that are more complete than at Hagia Sophia and give some idea of the richness of old Constantinople, and how this richness was expressed in incredibly ornate and beautiful church decorations. You’ll also head well off the tourist trail into less-well-visited, more traditional areas of the city.

Hagia Eirene's sombre decor - or Andrew Eldritch's front room

Lastly, if you can’t do any of these things, still go, whenever you can. Hagia Sophia is enormous and has room for everyone. Spend a while admiring the marble columns and the northern balcony of the gallery and you’ll leave the crowds behind, and probably get the special, private moments that this sacred space offers to so many.

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Little Hagia Sophia

In a city that offers a lot of wow moments, one picked out from a week of many.

Emperor Justinian I, with his Empress, Theodora left a mighty legacy on Constantinople during his reign from 527 to 565AD, dates that seem bogglingly ancient and obscure to the mind of this Englishman. While England was rooted in darkness during this period, in modern-day Istanbul a revival of the glories of the Roman Empire was going on. Justinian had a bit of trouble with rioting early in his reign, with the Nika revolt resulting in the destruction of Hagia Sophia. The destroyed Basilica’s remains can be seen in the grounds of today’s church, sitting slightly forlornly with large tourist’s bottoms resting on them after inspecting the mosaics.

The marvellous Byzantium1200 project has a reconstruction of this earlier church as well as many other 3D images of lost Constantinople. What a superb website.

Justinian’s ambition and drive – which characterised his reign – is best epitomised by visiting the rebuilt Hagia Sophia, constructed between 532 and 537. The only downside is that every man jack in town is either in Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque or walking between the two at any one time. But the chaps behind Hagia Sophia, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles left another fine construction. Don’t act like you don’t know them. They are serious men of history and to be saluted.

Isidore and Anthemius warmed up a little by building the Church of Saints Sergius & Bacchus, fulfilling a promise made by Justinian to dedicate a church to them in thanks for their reputed delivery of him, in a vision, from a treason charge in his youth. This church, built between 527 and 536, has been since 1513 a mosque, known today as Küçuk Ayasofya Camii, or Little Hagia Sophia. Pick up John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd’s brilliant Strolling Through Istanbul for a detailed architectural guide to the building and its precincts.

Visiting is a joy. Still functioning as a neighbourhood mosque, Little Hagia Sophia feels quiet, cool and sacred. It is easy to imagine post-conquest Constaninople, and further back the role the place would have had as a neighbourhood eastern Christian. The few visitors who make their way here stroll around in silence. It is impossible not to be awed by the sense of light and space. The only thing dragging you into the modern age is the occasional commuter train trundling out of Sirceki railway station bound for the suburbs or distant Thrace. Within the compound is an Islamic burial-ground and a cool, tranquil tea garden lined with small shops. This leafy place is perfect for a restful hour reading or, in the case of our young companions, breaking out the wooden train-set that goes everywhere with us.  In two of the shops artisans work on hand-crafted illuminated drawings of Dervishes and centuries-old scenes of Istanbul which make wonderful souvenirs.

To reach Little Hagia Sophia, turn your back on its big brother and aim for the Arasta Bazaar. Walk through here and on exiting follow the street downhill – you’ll start to see the familiar shape emerge at the bottom of the street. There’s no entry fee but donations are welcome, and arms and legs should be covered.

On your way back to the marvellous Sultanahmet scrum, or perhaps while munching a fish sandwich on the dockside at Eminönü, you might wish to reflect that for all Justinian’s achievements, when he died Byzantine scholar and historian Procopius wrote a bilious Secret History of his life tearing him to shreds. What a fascinating, complicated and confusing place Istanbul is, and so much of its history can still be explored.