Did you watch the movie Night at the Museum? The film stars Ben Stiller, a night watchman in the Museum of Natural History, a funny story of him with the people and animals, which begin to come to life at the museum after the sun sets. If I say making this is possible at Istanbul?
Ok, I admit. Nothing coming to life exactly, in the museum that I will recommend to you, but there are living animals. (Continue reading, I will mention them soon.)
Some tour companies in the Istanbul, started to organize night tours to the Hagia Sophia, which is the probably the best cultural heritage of Istanbul, with a special permission. I started to search as soon as I learnt that. I have seen that, there are some tour agencies really doing this. The guides organizing these tours also among the few quality tour guides of Turkey. Actually, calling them as tour guides a kind of underestimating their qualification, we have to qualify these valuable people primarily with other specialties. For example, Bogazici University graduate, historian Saffet Emre Tonguç is one of the organizers of this tour. The other one is, Mimar Sinan University graduate, Turkologist Ali Canip Olgunlu. What makes this tour attractive is not only entering the Hagia Sophia Museum, when it’s completely empty at night, besides this, interesting stories told by the guides let us have an unforgettable night.
We met at the Four Seasons Hotel in Sultanahmet region about 19.00 for the tour. The tour was organized by Saffet Emre Tonguç that day. He was signing his travel books when we arrive. The headsets were given to us to hear his telling clearly during the tour. At the same time tea and coffee were served. We were about 50-60 people. After taking the necessary equipment we set off with our guide’s sign. Firstly, our guide informed us the trends in Turkish architecture, which also tailored the architecture of the Four Seasons, while we were walking throughout the street. We were moving towards to Hagia Sophia while listening stories about Tevkifhane Street, Divan Road, Haseki Hammam and Blue (Sultan Ahmet) Mosque.
After passing the security check, we entered into the museum. Firstly, we learnt that today’s Hagia Sophia is actually the 3rd Hagia Sophia in the history. There is nothing left of the first one, the last remaining of the second one welcomed us at the entrance of Hagia Sophia.
Then, the stories began with the Emperor’s Gate at the entrance of the museum. However, the stories we heard, will not be placed in this article of course. This would be unfair to the guides, who spent a lot of effort on the tour, and also it will not be very interesting to just read the stories without being in that atmosphere. Because, this Byzantine church is so glamorous that we often found ourselves looking around astonished.
As the structure is very old and has been damaged by earthquakes, a continuous renovation must be carried out. Therefore, a pier, which is installed from floor to ceiling, always present in the structure. Therefore, it is not possible to photograph the whole structure. Only in 2010, when Istanbul became the European Capital of Culture, this pier was removed and it was possible to take images of the entire structure at that time.
While the tour of the museum’s first floor was ending, our host came. The famous cross-eyed Cat of Hagia Sophia, Gli! It is rumored that she is living here for centuries. The cat is quite familiar with the place. It is so obvious that we are the visitors and she is the host. She jumped from step to step with confident attitudes, and said welcome to my house. When she entered the same shoot together with Obama, Erdoğan and Günay during the Barack Obama’s visit to Hagia Sophia, the cat’s glory spread all over the world. She even has a Facebook account. I asked her to pose, thanks to her, she didn’t refuse.
Now, let’s talk about the second floor. Walking in the passageway up to the second floor of the museum was very mysterious. Like the set of the Game of Thrones, as if you were climbing up the upper floor of a castle from the stone corridors accompanied by the burning torches, a long and difficult passageway awaits you. We also learned that there are underground tunnels beneath the Hagia Sophia that connected to the Basilica Cistern, but there are very difficult procedures to enter there. From what I hear, only a scientific study was granted in the past once.
When we got up to the 2nd floor, we had the opportunity to see the entire building, the wall decorations, writings and pictures from a further and wider perspective. As it was dark outside, only the yellow lights were illuminating the structure.The ambiance was amazing. Saffet Emre Tonguç opened a window on the right side of the building and warned us “You must definitely take a shoot of Blue (Sultan Ahmet) Mosque from this angle, while you have a chance, and left us with the view below.
On the second floor, there is a Jesus mosaic looking at you from all sides, perhaps the first photoshopped mosaic (!) of history and the gravestone of the Fourth crusade commander Henricus Dandolo, you may remember from the book and movie of Inferno by Dan Brown. At this point I had learned something that disappointed me. None of the scenes in Inferno were filmed in Istanbul. An exact replica of the set was built in Hungary and Tom Hanks never came to Istanbul for this film. Only the team came to Istanbul to get some images. This made me a little upset.
The trip ended with the Splendid Door we used to get to the exit at the downstairs. It was very cold outside because it was March, when the tour was organized. By the way, a small warning for those who want to join the tour: be sure to wear a thick soled shoes, because the cold of the stone floor is quite effective. Wrap up, it’s very cold inside, especially in the winter and early spring. Finally, don’t use high-heeled shoes, because the passageway are paved with tiny stones like cobblestone, and it can be a pain to climb upstairs.
This tour was a memorable experience for me. Once again, I saw how accurate the decision to visit a historical structure with a well-informed guide. Also, I had the pleasure of a night trip to this architectural wonder, which was embroidered with different religions in different periods. I don’t want to mention the tour company here, but if you Google “Hagia Sophia at Night”, some companies will pop-up. The prices must vary around 50-60 €. I suggest to check if you see a higher price.
By the way, The European Night of Museums festival is held every year in İstanbul. Within the scope of this event, you can visit the Hagia Sophia Museum as this tour, and also with the normal entrance fee of the museum. Last year, The European Night of Museums festival was held in the Hagia Sophia, but not sure whether the museum changes yearly. You should check.
On the other hand, if you like to hang out in such places at night, I can give you some other advice. Famous pianist Tuluyhan Uğurlu organizes traditional Grand Bazaar concerts. Every year, you can participate to this concert after purchasing tickets, at evening hours, after the Grand Bazaar is closed. And you can visit the Grand Bazaar while there are no people and also enjoy a musical feast.
Finally, walk to Gülhane and Sirkeci respectively starting from Hagia Sophia to end your night. Then, pass the Galata Bridge and get to the Tunnel. After, climb up to end of the İstiklal Avenue either via the stairs or tunnel. Walk to the J’adore Chocolatier Café and end your winter night with a cup of hot chocolate with famous desert Oh La La Beatrice!
I hope I have promoted you to join this tour, because it was an amazing experience for me.