Photoessay: Hagia Sophia, part I

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Hagia Sophia is not only an incredible piece of engineering and architecture – but also one of faith. Constructed in its current form between 532 and 537 AD, it has served as church and mosque (and now museum). Even today, you can’t help but be inspired, humbled and in awe of the work behind it; given its sheer size, it would still take a significant effort to build with modern construction techniques, and that’s excluding the huge amount of specialised handwork required for decoration and outfitting. I’m pretty sure very little of what we build today at that scale will still be around in 1500 years. The question of faith is quite interesting, too: the sheer resources and determination to construct something of that size places huge demands on the population of the city and its rulers. There was probably no economic return model, either – unlike say the European market towns of the Middle Ages. What impressed me the most wasn’t so much the sheer size or unsupported internal volume (though this was still significant) – but the detail given to every surface. Not all of it was completed by 537, and renovations and restoration have been pretty much ongoing non stop thanks to wars, earthquakes and simple entropy – but it’s nevertheless what makes it a truly colossal undertaking, and because of this I think of the renovations as much a part of the building as anything else. Other buildings like the Pyramids might be larger, but they simply don’t have the same kind of finishing requirements, or continual evolution and sense of being an active, alive part of history rather than merely a passive observer. (And I can’t think of anything modern except perhaps the Sagrada Familia that comes close, and even that is still not finished after more than a hundred years.)

I had the opportunity to shoot it for perhaps a few hours total; nowhere near enough time to do justice to the structure (and obviously not around the scaffolds, tripod restrictions etc.) – even so, there are so many images this photoessay will be split into two parts. Enjoy! MT

This series was shot in Istanbul with a Hasselblad H6D-100c, 50, 100 and 150mm lenses, and post processed with Photoshop and LR Workflow III (and the Weekly Workflow). Get more out of your voyages with T1: Travel Photography.

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


More info on Hasselblad cameras and lenses can be found here.


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. wonderful work

  2. Stunning images of this stunning mosque. One of my favourite!

  3. Every time I go anywhere, the interesting buildings are covered in scaffolding. As you mention, these great buildings are always a work in progress ( just like my house! ). I remember when all the great monuments in Paris ( when I was a kid ) were a sooty black from the car exhausts. That was no city of light. Then, probably around 1960, the French government decided to “renovate= power wash” the outside of the various buildings. The city of light was reborn. Now if we could just cut the number of tourists ( myself included ) at least in half. For now, the terrorists are trying their best to do that!

  4. Yes beautiful photos, but why nothing from inside which is even more gorgeous and interesting?

  5. Amazing photographs! Made me want to get up and go to Istanbul (and forget that I just came back from a three-week holiday in Greece and neither have the time nor the money to instantly do so). Keep up the great work!

  6. Per Kylberg says:

    Excellent photos! Like the last (morning?) picture best.
    Having been to Istanbul a couple of times, the city is highly photogenic. Hagia Sophia is the jewel but also a photographic challenge as it not only huge, it has so much detail, representing history, culture, and beauty. What I like it is not perfectly restored which makes you really feel the times that passed.
    The blocks SW towards the sea away from that big touristic centre there is also a mix of old and new, colorful exciting architecture. Everybody knows about the big Bazaar, fewer visit surrounding Hanis/Hamis: Walled distribution hubs and manufacturing sites. Found one very old, partly a ruin but still working. Visited small factories (jewelry, brass objects, tailoring). Always welcome and often offered a cup of tea…….

    • We too found that tea really makes Istanbul go around…there’s a little tea-kiosk at the corner of the Hagia Sophia that’s probably been there for centuries; who knows what its proprietors have witnessed? 🙂

  7. Sean Tomlinson says:

    How neat! 2138 is terrific – too bad about the workers. How did you ensure appropriate color with the odd (ancient) colors on the exterior? What took you to Turkey? This building’s on my short list of places I dearly want to visit. I’m excited to see the indoor photos, but I assume you had to, and were able to, use a tripod, right?

    • Thanks. Color – just get the WB right; Hasselblad native color is tuned to neutral. Turkey: same as for you; I’ve always wanted to go, and been very curious about the architecture. No tripods allowed (or used) 🙂

  8. michael gannon says:

    great pictures, this is one of my top 5 places i want to go to. i really like your other photos of the interior of this building

  9. You were there at a lovely time of year – when the colorful pointed tulips of Istanbul are in bloom! Aya Sophia is magnificent! Inside and out! I really enjoy your shots of the cascading exterior surfaces in such good light! The last time I was there was two weeks before troubles broke out near Taksim a few years ago – just steps away from where I was staying. Turkey is an exceptional country with so much to offer – in times of tranquility, that is. Perhaps your being there is a sign that things are improving.

  10. The Hagia/Aya/Sancta Sophia — the Church of the Holy Wisdom — is quite remarkable. It’s also very difficult to photograph as well as you have done.

    Are we going to see the interior?

  11. Junaid Rahim says:

    There are a few things about the Hagia Sophia that fascinates me –
    The first is despite it being originally a Church, it was the foundation of inspiration for many mosques built in Istanbul.
    Even though there are ‘newer’, ‘grander’ constructions completed by the Ottoman, this ‘older’ original still stands more impressive. More so given its age. The sheer size and scale for the time is truly mind boggling.
    And I’m trying to think what comes close in that era…maybe if you fast forward 500 years or so you get Ankor Wat but I’m struggling if truth be told.

    Lastly, lovely shots – I think the ones that show the scale are more impressive, but there is still some great detail in the architecture 🙂

    • Thanks. What always gets me is that it’s so much older than the rest of the comparably sized structures in Istanbul – yet more than holds its own in every way. Truly a masterpiece…

  12. What about mixity ?

  13. Haghia Sophia is one of humanity’s great architectural achievements.
    It was not only at the very limits of technology at the time, but represented a grand aesthetic vision that I feel has never really been surpassed.
    Even as a shadow of its original self, it is the sort of building that reaches its arms around you to embrace you warmly, close to its chest.
    It feels as though it hides the mysteries – and terrors – of a over thousand years.
    I would love to see a photographic project to capture its grand interiors, free of the tourist throng and restoration scaffolds that have stood inside for more than a decade now. The only comprehensive books I’ve seen on the subject are overpriced, under-quality tourist products from the Turkish government press.
    Beautiful photographs, Ming. It’s wonderful that you’ve brought the H6D-100c to bear on such a wonderful subject.
    Thanks very much.

  14. beautiful pictures

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