Overlooking the Black Sea west of the city, the monastery church of Aya Sofya (Haghia Sophia) is one of the most romantic set of Byzantine remains in Turkey. It seems certain that there was a pagan temple here, and then an early Byzantine chapel, long before Manuel I Komnenos commissioned the present structure between 1238 and 1263. The ground plan and overall conception were revolutionary at the time, successfully assimilating most of the architectural trends, Christian and Muslim, prevalent in contemporary Anatolia. Converted to a mosque after 1461, Aya Sofya subsequently endured some even leaner and more ignominious times as an ammunition store and then as a hospital.
The church is laid out along a greatly modified cross-in-square scheme, with a dome supported by four columns and three apses at the east end of the triple nave. Before rushing inside to view the famous frescoes, take a moment to study the finely sculpted, albeit weatherworn, frieze illustrating Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which surrounds the south portal, the only one of the three not tampered with by the Ottomans when they reconsecrated the church.
In their fluidity, warmth and expressiveness, Aya Sofya’s original frescoes represented a drastic break with the rigidity of prior painting, and compare well with the best work of their century, and the next, in Serbia and Macedonia as well as in Constantinople itself. Of the frescoes in the central apse a serene Ascension hovers over The Virgin Enthroned between the two Archangels; on the north wall of the same apse appears The Miraculous Draught of Fishes. The southeast apse is thought to have once been the location of Manuel I’s tomb. The Pantocrator in the dome was unhappily beyond repair, but a host of angels swirls around him, just above the Apostles.
The narthex, whose ceiling is divided into three sections by stone ribs, is almost wholly devoted to scenes from the life of Christ. The central zone exploits its complicated quadruple vaulting by depicting each of the Tetramorphs, symbols of the Evangelists, accompanied by seraphim. Alongside, such miraculous episodes as The Wedding at Cana, a decidedly adolescent Child Jesus Teaching in the Temple, Healing the Blind Man at Siloam and Healing the Canaanite’s Daughter (complete with vomited demon) fill the south vault, while Feeding the Five Thousand and Calming the Storm on the Lake of Galilee grace the north vault. The north portico is taken up mostly by Old Testament scenes, including The Sufferings of Job and Jacob’s Dream. Between 1957 and 1964, technicians restored dozens of these frescoes to their former glory. Well lit and accurately labelled in English, these are compulsory viewing even if you’ve only a passing interest in religious art.
Just north of the church an ensemble of sunken masonry was once the baptismal font; the square belfry to the west is a 1443 afterthought, indicative of the strong Italianate flavour of the waning empire. If the tower is open – a rare event – you’ll find that the frescoes within are not nearly of the same quality as those in the church proper.
In the garden opposite the ticket office is a small museum consisting of a village house built and furnished in typical Black Sea style, and a 1920s-vintage serender or grain crib on stilts, with wooden discs at the top of the stilts, to prevent mice attacking the stored grain. The setting of the adjacent café, covered in wisteria and offering tea and snacks, is bucolic.