Haghia Sophia is one of those places, like Russia, that I had long known about, often dreamt of visiting and was afraid might ultimately disappoint. I should not have worried: the reality is better than I had expected.
The first thing that strikes you from the outside is the size of the building, its height and bulk, the sheer size of its dome. If it hits you today, what must it have been like in the sixth century when it was first built? Overpowering, awe-inspiring, a fitting place to worship a god. It was the largest church in Christendom until the Renaissance.
The massive buttressing over the main entrance shows how the walls have had to be reinforced to support the weight of the huge dome.
Scattered around what was the churchyard are old tombs and stone pillars from the Byzantine period, a sad reminder of its imperial past.
The current Haghia Sophia is the third church built on this site. The first one dates from the 4th century. A second one, dedicated in 415 AD, was destroyed by fire in 532 AD and is represented by a fragment of a frieze in front of the main entrance to the church. The current Haghia Sophia was dedicated by Justinian in 537 AD.
Just inside the main entrance is the outer narthex, an entrance or lobby area. Today it is a museum of items from the Byzantine era, a porphyry stand, the tomb of an express, a huge stone bowl, Greek inscriptions, as well as explanatory boards about the church.
From the outer narthex you get a view through the Imperial Gates through into the body of the church itself.
Originally the Imperial Gates were only allowed to be used by the Emperor and his entourage and were guarded 24 hours a day. In the tympanum over the Imperial Gates is a mosaic from the late 9th / early 10th century showing an emperor (possibly Leo VI (the Wise)) kneeling beside Christ
Interestingly in another tympanum in the inner narthex is a reminder of the Iconoclast periods of Byzantine history. For reasons still the subject of scholarly debate in the periods 730-787 and 814-842 the Emperor and the Orthodox Church turned against the use of icons and the depiction of Christ and the saints. Perhaps it was due to Byzantine military failures against Islam, a culture that also forbade the making of images of the divine. Perhaps it was due to the church trying to assert its authority and gain control over the popular veneration of holy images. During these periods, many old images were destroyed and frequently covered over with a simple cross, as in this tympanum.