Hagia Sophia is the most recognizable landmark in Istanbul and probably all of Turkey. Dating from the 6th century, it’s almost as old as the city it’s in. Its status has changed multiple times:
- 537 AD – Church (largest cathedral until 1520!)
- 1453 – Transformed into a Mosque
- 1931 – Closed
- 1934 – Reopened as a Museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk
- 2020 – Mosque status restored again
Today, Hagia Sophia is a mosque, but it also kind of functions as a museum. Muslim prayers are performed 5 times a day and all believers are welcome to join.
Can you pray in Hagia Sophia if you’re Muslim?
Yes, you can pray in Hagia Sophia as a Muslim. The 5 daily prayers are performed according to the official times depending on the position of the sun in Istanbul. Check them out here.
Muslim Prayer Times
Muslims pray 5 times a day at variable times depending on their location on Earth and the time of year. These are:
- Fajr (dawn, 2 Rak’ah)
- Dhuhr (midday, 4 Rak’ah)
- Asr (afternoon, 4 Rak’ah)
- Maghrib (sunset, 3 Rak’ah)
- Isha (night, 4 Rak’ah)
The Muslim prayer is called “a salah”. Every salah is performed with a number of Rak’ahs – a single iteration of movements and prayer chants.
Depending on which salah it is, there is a different number of Rak’ahs for each prayer as given above.
Hagia Sophia Imams
Prayer in Hagia Sophia is led by an Imam. When it reopened as a mosque in 2020, three Imams were appointed:
- Mehmet Boynukalin, a professor of Islamic law at Istanbul’s Marmara University;
- Ferruh Mustuer, a renowned imam and hafiz (a memorizer of the Quran);
- Bunjamin Topcuoglu, a long-term Imam of other Istanbul mosques.
During the Islamic prayers, there is a rope separating the front prayer portion of Hagia Sophia. Attendants urge all visitors who won’t partake in the prayer to go behind the rope.
Can Muslim women pray in Hagia Sophia?
Women are NOT allowed to go past the rope EVEN IF they are Muslim and want to pray.
Women are welcome to pray in a separate portion of Hagia Sophia.
Can you pray in Hagia Sophia if you’re Christian?
There are no organized Christian prayers in Hagia Sophia.
However, if you just want to quietly and individually pray the Christian way in Hagia Sophia, there’s nothing stopping you. It used to be a church and there are still Christian icons and mosaics on the walls.
These mosaics were reportedly supposed to be covered during the Muslim prayers, but when I was there I did not see anything covered during the Maghrib.
If you intend to do a Christian prayer, make sure you don’t go during the Muslim prayer times – that would be a bit insensitive, don’t you think?
Also, keep in mind that outside of Muslim prayers, Hagia Sophia is open to the general public and most visit to look at and take pictures. It may not be the best place to pray.
Last but not least, you can join the Muslim prayer if you do so respectfully. I may get a lot of backlash for saying this, but remember that both faiths believe in one God as the creator of everything.
As Abrahamic religions, in their essence, they aren’t much different. Christians and Jews are seen as “People of the Book” by Muslims. It’s really just a matter of who they believe the real prophet is. I’m oversimplifying, but that’s not a master class in Religious Studies after all.
On a side note, check out my article about the cave where Abraham was born in Sanliurfa.
Can you visit Hagia Sophia if you don’t want to pray?
Yes, you can visit Hagia Sophia even if you don’t want to pray. Hagia Sophia opens for regular visitors at 10:00 and closes at 23:00 every day.
My advice – visit in the late evening – crowds are much smaller and it’s way less feet-smelly.
The mosque is not closed during prayer time, however, a rope is stretched in the middle of the mosque and visitors are asked to remain behind it. You can observe behind the line if you wish.
My experience praying at Hagia Sophia
I went to visit Hagia Sophia about 15 minutes before Maghrib, the sunset prayer. There was no queue of people trying to enter and thus no waiting in the scorching summer sun that many endure when they go during the day.
Five minutes into my entering Hagia Sophia the attendants stretched the rope and urged all visitors to go behind it. That was when I made the split-second decision to go past the rope and join the crowd of Muslims. I basically decided to answer the question of whether I can pray in Hagia Sophia first-hand.
So there I am, having overstepped the limits of my own piety, both literally and figuratively.
It was another 5 minutes of people gathering, some already doing their prayers, others chatting and the occasional lost tourist who’s still snapping pics like he’s a paparazzi at the Oscars – I swear, that wasn’t me.
Out of a sudden, everyone starts walking forward and I am already too deep in to go back so I just join the crowd.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, facing the mihrab (the niche in the wall that points towards Mecca), listening to the Imam (Muslims can pray without him, he just knows the Quran pretty well and leads the prayers).
Everyone says Amin and so do I. Everyone kneels and so do I. We bow, my neighbors mumble prayers, and we stand up again. Repeat that 3 times. Did I just pray?
There’s nobody between man and God in Islam. Everyone can pray and you aren’t judged on your piety by others. However, one must pray in Arabic, so no matter how earnest you are in your submission to Allah, you won’t be performing the Quranic Salah.