My No. 1 - Hagia Sophia

From the Architectural Bucket List Series

posted by Allison Stoos

After years of architecture and landscape architecture history classes, I’ve developed quite a must-see architectural bucket list. This past spring I was fortunate to travel to Turkey and Greece to cross off several sites, including my Number 1. In a series of blog posts, I will highlight my experiences at some of these top sites as well as a few that hadn’t been on my list before but should be on yours.

Also from this series: 
» Topkapi Palace, Istanbul – A Paper Come to Life

Me in Sultanahmet Park, looking towards the Hagia Sophia

The first time I heard of the massive domed church that had survived by extensive engineering (and re-engineering) over hundreds of years of ever-changing regimes and religions, I was a freshman sitting in an intro to architecture history course at Texas A&M and I thought “ok, I gotta see this.” This year my husband and I were finally able to take the trip.

Of course, upon arriving in Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia was the first thing I wanted to see – sooo I grabbed my camera and guide book and we excitedly headed over.  Standing between fields of tulips in Sultanahmet Park, I looked up to the Hagia Sophia. Although it was certainly impressive in scale, the exterior just didn’t look all that noteworthy, at least not in comparison to the ornately marbled Blue Mosque directly behind us. Slightly disappointed that I had labeled this my number one architectural site to see, we bought our tickets and went inside …

View of the Blue Mosque from the Hagia Sophia

We started in the southwestern vestibule passing under the intricate mosaic of Justinian I and Constantine presenting models of the Hagia Sophia and the city of Constantinople to the Virgin Mary.  As an experienced model builder, this image resonated with me – reminding me of all the church design we do, and who we are doing it for – not to mention the level of detail in the mosaic is downright impressive. We continued on, passing through the narthex and the massive Imperial Gate, stepping over the marble threshold worn by the feet of millions. Then I looked up --- and everything stopped. 

The sheer awe of the dome overwhelmed me. Tourists meandered around me, trying to keep up with their guides, and I just stood, in complete silence head tilted directly upwards as I slowly spun in a circle, blinking back watery eyes, until I was finally able to utter a barely audible “wow.”

Finally regaining composure, we returned to reading our guide book. We read about how the size of the dome was big enough to fit the entire Cathedral of Notre Dame under it. We read about how the dome is carried by 4 pendentives allowing for and unbroken arcade of light – giving the appearance that it was simply floating in the heavens. We read about its time as an Eastern Orthodox Christian church and then as a Muslim mosque, and hundreds of other interesting facts that you can easily read somewhere else online. I spent half the day exploring every piece of marble, fresco and mosaic I could, rubbing my hands over the intricate carved details and imagining what it was like to be there a thousand years ago. Would I have been royalty commissioning mosaics of me with Jesus, or a bored Viking carving my initials into marble handrails?

With these thoughts swimming around in my mind, we went back outside and I sat down on some ruins that were strewn about the café area and I sketched. Now, I don’t consider myself skilled at accurate representation by any means, but sketching allows me to really look at a building – the brick proportions, the size of doors relative to arches, mullion spacing, parapet caps and a many other things that maybe only architects think about. But hey, it’s what got me into this adventure.