The Hagia Sophia was first built in the year 360 as a Christian church. It was destroyed, rebuilt and destroyed again before Emperor Justinian ordered a third reconstruction in 537. Characteristic of Byzantine architecture, it was the largest church in the world for almost a thousand years. This is the building still standing today.

When the Ottomans conquered Istanbul in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II ordered for the conversion of the Christian church to a Muslim mosque. In this process most of the frescoes and mosaics were plastered over and the Christian icons removed. Mihrabs or prayer and worship rooms were added as well as the 4 minarets or pillars surrounding the mosque.

When the mosque was declared a national heritage site in 1935, thus becoming a museum, many of the frescoes were partially recovered by peeling away at the several layers of plaster. In some cases there were up to 8 layers of plaster covering the Christian images.

These stones are remnants from the 2nd reconstruction. This one in particular, along with other sections that have broken off, make up 12 lambs representing the 12 apostles.

Imperial Gate Mosaic dates to the late 9th century or early 10th century. Christ is centered giving a blessing with His right hand while laying His left hand on a book. On His right is Mary, and on His left is Gabriel the Archangel. Bowing before Him either represents Leo VI the Wise or his son Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus.

Only a square section of the floor (about 15×15 feet) was done in this design. This is called the Omphalian, the place where Byzantine emperors were coronated.

There are four seraphim mosaics in the mosque, and only one of which the face has been restored, 7 layers later.

The Deësis Mosaic dates back to the 13th century. Christ is centered with Mary on His right and John the Baptist on His left. Below is a depiction of how it looked before deteriorating.

The Comnenus mosaic dates from the 12th century. Mary is centered with Christ on her lap. Christ is giving His blessing with His right hand and holding a scroll with His left hand. On Mary’s right stands Emperor John II Comneus, and on her left stands the Empress Irene.

The Empress Zoe mosaic dates to the 11th century. Christ is shown in the middle giving a blessing with His right hand and holding the Bible in His left. On His right is Constantine IX Monomachus, and on the left is Empress Zoe.

The southwestern entrance mosaic date back to the 10th century. Mary sits with Christ on her lap who is giving His blessing with His right hand and holding a scroll in His left hand. On Mary’s left is the Emperor Constantine, and to her left is Justinian I.

Describing the Hagia Sophia in one word… breathtaking. Standing in the center of the room on the ground floor and looking straight up into the dome gives you a true feeling of the immensity within this edifice – the immensity of the size, of the history, of the detail, of the art, and even the immensity of its power. I could have spent all day there.