With its peach color, domes, and minarets, you can't help but fall in love at first sight. As you move inside, though, the initial excitement converts into something more profound. The Hagia Sophia is the most celebrated and important building in Istanbul. It's set in the heart of the Sultanahmet district just steps from the Blue Mosque, another of Istanbul's most-visited monuments.
The Hagia Sophia was built in 537 and was the most important Christian temple for over a thousand years. It then became a mosque until in 1935 Ataturk converted it into a museum.
No matter how well-traveled you are, the interior of the Hagia Sophia will take your breath away. The arched roof seems to become one with the sky. The massive dome seems not to have been built by mere human hands. Everything about the Hagia Sophia is massive and impacting, even the massive 19th-century Arabic medallions which were once used to cover the Christian images during its mosque era. Another standout of the Hagia Sophia are its 9th-century mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, various saints, and archangels. The most amazing mosaics are on the second floor.
This small mosque, or the church of St. Savior in Chora as it is also called, has one of the most pictorial treasures stored within itself. Its mosaics and frescoes are of extraordinary quality. Little is known about the early days of the church, although its name means "of the field", because it is believed to have been built in a rural setting. The present church dates from the eleventh century. Between 1315 and 1321 it was refurbished and, commissioned by Teodoro Metochites - a remarkable dignitary of his time - at that time frescoes were incorporated.
Right before you get to the Open Air Museum - when about 50 meters from Göreme-, do not miss the Tokali Kilise. Admission is free. It is one of the biggest and most beautiful churches of Göreme. It has frescoes from the X and XI century which are wonderful and in very good condition. It is considered the oldest church in the region, but despite its free entry and beauty it's normally not crowded. Most tourists visiting the area on organized tours don't have time to walk along the road leading to Göreme. It is really worth going inside, because of the tranquility and beauty of the walls full of frescoes. Also because of the friendly guard who was happy to explain things about the church or take a picture. Downstairs you can find a disturbing crypt (almost everything in Göreme is disturbing ...)
On the banks of the Golden Horn, in the neighborhoods of Balat-antigus and Fernet, we found the church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars. This interesting church is located near the building of Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate. Although at first glance it does not draw attention, it is one of the most interesting sights in the city. Why? It is a neo-Gothic church made entirely of cast iron! The tour of its construction is fascinating. It was built in Vienna before being transported by boat along the Danube and was mounted in Istanbul in 1898. It is normally not open to the public, but if you're lucky, you can be invited to enter it. Although entrance costs nothing, a few liras is always appreciated...
This church gets its name from the marks on the ground is in front of its entrance. One of the best frescoes in the region can be found here. It's the one on the left side of the church and it tells the story of Judas betraying Jesus on Good Friday. Like the rest of chapels, in this Byzantine church it's important to look at the details that make these stone buildings totally unique and works with dozens of stories to tell.
This church is within the establishment of the Monastery of Selime. The inside is not too special, its external construction, earth, stones, impossible shapes near the cliff, will not leave anyone apathetic. It is more "defined" as a Monastery and the best known function.
This church stands out due to its fascinating 11th century frescoes found in part of the vault. On the left wall you can see Saint George and Saint Theodore attacking a dragon. Near them Constantine the Great and his mother Helena hold the Cross. On the right wall is Saint Onofre, a hermit of Egypt, with a date palm hiding that he's naked. The best thing about this church is just these images, but the light and shadows that are created within its walls dark are noteworthy too.
Without doubt the most spectacular Christian ruins of Hierapolis. The extraordinary martyrdom of San Felipe can be reached by climbing one of the small roads that rise from the Roman theater. Built on the site where it is believed that San Felipe was martyred. Each of the eight chapels arches are marked by crosses still preserved and the views from it are stunning. It is worth climbing the narrow path just for that. You can see all the "mountain of cotton" of Pamukkale and Hierapolis surrounding fields. A unique place.
Near the entrance of the Open Air Museum, you will find this small, dark chapel. Its architecture is spectacular. These were ancient tombs of the early Christians who lived in the area. Almost like a small catacomb, this church served as a burial place and also a place of worship.
Climbing up the steep, labyrinth of abandoned houses in Çavusin, with some difficulty, to one of the oldest and most fascinating churches in Cappadocia: the church of Saint John the Baptist. Nestled near the top of the mountain it has the most beautiful views. In addition, the interior is spectacular thanks to the greatness of its nave and the number of corners in which you can get lost without having to run into a single tourist. Access to the church is free and it's worth going up the mountain. Once up, you feel like Indiana Jones!
Inside Topkapi Palace is the Orthodox church of St. Irene, it's the only church that hasn't been turned into a mosque. It was founded in the VI century and was the first place of worship to be built in ancient Constantinople. It's 100x32 meters with a Roman style Basilica. In summer it holds concerts such as the Istanbul Music Festival. Admission is free.
The Agacalti Kilise (or Church "Under a Tree") is one of the many troglodyte churches in the Ihlara Valley. It's neither the best nor the biggest, but it's the closest to an exit. Thus, it's always bustling with tourists, though it may not be the best choice if you want to experience the silence of a solitary troglodyte church. It's a good reference of what you'll find in Ihlara if you're in a hurry or have seen other ones before, like the Open Air Museum of Goreme. I thought it was amazing to see how the Turks visited this church. In a country where over 90 percent of the population is Muslim, visiting a church seems strange and exotic compared to what we're accustomed to in the West. When I visit a mosque or a Buddhist temple, I ask the meaning of the many symbols and representations common in those religions; the Turks do the same with churches. It's funny how the guide will explain who the Magi were, why Jesus was born in a stable, or why Mary is the mother of God. The tables have turned! And that's always good from time to time.
The charm of the Chapel of Santa Barbara lies in its typical decoration of the iconoclastic period. Such decoration (eighth and ninth century) prohibits "realistic" depictions of people and animals. So the chapel is decorated with abstraction and expressiveness that are absolutely unique. The paintings are a blend of strength, ingenuity and very special abstraction. The bricks are painted with a like and animals are reduced to simple doodles. In addition to these great paintings, there's an ancient altar where the priest presided over the Mass ... A must!
After the Chapel of St. Basil we found this beautiful little church covered with frescoes and with eight small domes. Some say that the Archangel Gabriel is holding on to part of the central nave. The beauty of this church, like many others in Cappadocia, lies in the simplicity and the expressiveness of its frescoes. Being small and rather dark we found it very easy to imagine the small Byzantine Christian communities gathered here to pray.
Also called the Church of the Virgin Mary, one of the most beautiful buildings but goes unnoticed next to the ruins of Ephesus. Located on a plain covered with trees and plants, the original building was a museum and a hall of the Muses: It held conferences, lectures and debates. Unfortunately it was destroyed in a fire but was rebuilt as a church in the fourth century. Then it was used for the Third Ecumenical Council. It is a magical place where the ruins coexist perfectly with nature and wildlife. At the altar prayers continue to be made sporadically. One of the most peaceful and least "modified" places by the hand of modern man. The views from the church are beautiful.
The Ihlara Valley churches are not as well known as the Open Air Museum in Goreme, but for my taste they are of the same level, are cheaper and less crowded. If you visit Buradasiniz valley (about 4 km from Ihlara), this church is 1 km in a southerly direction, right after Kilisesi Karanlık Kale church. The walk and the church are worthwhile.
Another church that we visited in the Ihlara Valley. It's very near the Buradasiniz entrance (about 4 km from the village of Ihlara). It's also is known by the name of Dark Castle and the complex consists of several rooms, some decorated with minimalist paintings.
The Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity is very close to Taksim Square and its towers are visible from the square. The church is in a large garden and was built by architect Kampanaki (late nineteenth century).