St Peters beats it in religious importance, St Paul's beats it for size and St Basil's for probably sheer exoticism but to me the Haghia Sophia or Aya Sophia is one of the world's greatest architectural achievements. This is Turkey's Jewell. I can't think of a building that has stood for so long and witnessed as much as this "church of holy wisdom". Aya Sophia is pure history.
It stands in the centre of Istanbul directly opposite the equally stunning Sultanhammet mosque and a few hundred yards from the Topkapi Palace. The easiest way to reach it from Emininou or Galata is to take the tram up from 'The Golden Horn'. The tram climbs the hill up before heading west along Divan Yolu and its tourist scene. If you can hop off the tram at Sirkeci and have a look at the station. Istanbul was the terminus for the Orient Express - a train of super luxury that ran between the wars and whose fares were only afforded by the uber rich. Outside is florid Victorian bombast and the bedlam of modern Istanbul - inside is deathly quiet. The concourse is empty and it comes almost as a disappointment. There is an 'Orient Express' cafe and there is a small free museum. The museum has a history of rail travel in Turkey and plans of the station when it was built in 1888. Sirkeci station seems to be embarrassed by its past history and seems quite happy to be sidelined.
Then it is uphill to where the tourists gather and the entrance to Aya Sophia. Entrance is 10 TL and it is now a secular museum rather then a working mosque. It was the Byzantines who built the first stone. It was they who quarried that ochre red stone that the main body seems to be built of. And when you stand beneath, it's that red that is really striking. Justinian was the emperor and he wanted a place of worship fitting the capital of the eastern Roman empire. If Divan Yolu was the main imperial boulevard leading from the city gates you can imagine the sensation visitors got when they first spied it from a distance. Especially when a church with a dome was very cutting edge for the time.
The dome in fact became very famous and acted as a kind of beacon as the candles inside could be seen by ships on the Bosphorus in the dark. Being so visible made it coveted by anyone who took an interest in Constantinople. The crusade which went horribly wrong in 1204 put it to the sword; but the big one was in 1453. Mehmet the Conqueror wanted Constantinople and laid siege in one of the most famous wars in history. When the walls were breached 'The City of Constantine' was utterly sacked. Surviving men, women, and children were sold into slavery and many were massacred. The Turks rolled in and Mehmet took prayers in the church the day after the city fell. The cries of "God is Great!" were heard as the church was converted into a mosque. It was he who added the four minarets in each corner. It remained Islamic until the time of Ataturk. Mustafa Kemal himself had a great loathing of anything religious and opened the place as a museum.
As I approached the entrance I couldn't help notice the brickwork was in a shabby state (the roof looks very dusty) - in fact the whole thing reminded me of a giant kiln. Inside is a narthex (entry chamber) made of dark stone and echoing to footsteps. Then across the threshold and into the main chamber. The chamber is about 60ft in circumference and capped by an enormous dome. You get a true feeling of age especially when your footsteps echo on the marble floor. I spotted the column where Red Grant kills the Bulgar agent in From Russia With Love and those great porphyry columns were covered in Islamic shield decals. In fact I could spot where the Christian church of 1453 had been islamised. The pulpit had been where the imam read aloud from the Koran. I still felt the church wasn't completely obliterated - they never got rid of the frescoes high up on the ceiling of Christ with his arms outstretched. And the inside dimensions felt much more like a cathedral then a mosque.
I spent at least forty minutes inside spotting where the christian side was never truly eradicated. It was such a fascinating place. Even after a thousand years there is still the feeling of Old Byzantium poking through.