Not only does Istanbul sit on the Bosphorous Strait—precisely where the continents of Europe and Asia converge—but it also seems to be a crossroads for the ancient and modern worlds.

The city has been greatly influenced by various waves of powers and people of all cultural backgrounds.

The Hagia Sophia, a former basilica-turned-mosque that now serves as a museum, is an immaculate structure near the city center. Millions of tourists come here each year to marvel at the unrivaled architecture and breathtaking interiors—and, perhaps, to get a sense of the civilizations that have claimed the Hagia Sophia as their own.

Focus on Istanbul: secrets of the Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Passed along from the Greeks to the Ottomans and many more, the Hagia Sophia tells a number of stories. These are just a few of our favorite tales.

Many faiths have prayed at the Hagia Sophia

Two basilicas stood at this site before the current building was erected: the Church of Constantius II and the Church of Theodosius II.

Focus on Istanbul: secrets of the Hagia Sophia
Second church. Stone remains of the basilica ordered by Theodosius II …

In 532, not long after the destruction of the second church, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I called for an even more ornate church to be constructed.

What we know as the Hagia Sophia opened its doors in 537, and served as the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. It briefly fell into the hands of Roman Catholicism (from 1204 until 1261) during The Crusades. In 1453, the Hagia Sophia became an imperial mosque when the Ottomans conquered the city. It would remain an Islamic house of worship until 1935, when it was secularized and converted to its current form: a museum.

It boasts ingenious architecture

Much of the Hagia Sophia’s preliminary structure shows Byzantine innovation. The dome, for example, is uniquely supported by four pendentives—the first building to employ those curving, triangular vaults. And the 40 windows that line the base of the dome don’t just serve to channel in natural light. They also help to ease the weight of the dome upon the entire structure.

Focus on Istanbul: secrets of the Hagia Sophia
Hagia sophia · exterior view of central dome with ring of 40 windows at base

Each successive culture has left its mark on the Hagia Sophia, too. The four widely famed minarets, for example, are a prominent feature of Islamic design.

The intricate mosaics tell a tale

While many of the original mosaics that portrayed Christian imagery were destroyed when the Hagia Sophia became a mosque (or were shipped to Italy by Crusaders), some were discovered when the structure became a museum. For centuries, the artworks were preserved behind ornate Islamic tile work.

The Deësis Mosaic, created at the end of the Catholic period, is particularly intriguing because it depicts Jesus Christ as someone else. Some researchers believe Apollonius of Tyana, a Greek philosopher, sits in Christ’s place. According to this theory, Christ is fictional, and Apollonius served as a model for the story.

Focus on Istanbul: secrets of the Hagia Sophia
The Deësis Mosaic

Waters of panacea once attracted the ill

Until the Hagia Sophia was opened as a museum, many visitors flocked here to drink from two water wells, hailed for their purported healing powers. It was said that if you drank three times in a row, on Saturdays, from the well in the main hall, you would be cured of illness.

Another site, known as the Perspiring Column, puzzles guests because it remains constantly wet even on the hottest days.

Focus on Istanbul: secrets of the Hagia Sophia
The Perspiring Column

At its base is a hole through which many place a finger in hopes of being healed. Myth or not, many visitors give it a shot.

Source: Travel and Leisure by Stephen Casale