The most visited big museum after Topkapı Palace, the Hagia Sophia has been a center of attraction with the protocol visits one after another within the last years.
The manager of the Hagia Sophia Museum, Professor Haluk Dursun said the number of the visitors surpassed 2 million annually in past years, now it is 15,000 people per day, which sometimes creates difficulties.
Just like other big and famous museums in the world, Hagia Sophia will accept visitors with appointments.
"After the visit of Pope Jean Paul II there was an influx of visitors to the museum and after U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama's visit we are expecting even more attention," Dursun said.
After Obama patted a cat sitting above a column watching the black suited guys, the Turkish media showed great interest in the cat.
Dursun said there are three types of animals in and around Hagia Sophia. Cats are everywhere, wandering in and around the museum, pigeons fly around the dome and dogs wander in the outer court.
"The cats at Hagia Sophia were present in Byzantium times as well. They were than inherited by the Ottomans. That’s why I call them a dynasty," Dursun said, who was informing Obama on his visit to Hagia Sophia. He also mentioned that authorized officers checked everything one month before Obama’s visit. They investigated and checked each corner if there was anything that could fall on his head or a step that he could stumble on, said Dursun, adding that the pope’s team was different. Obama’s visit was stricter about security while the pope’s visit was full of dialogue and laughter.
Obama also walked until Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. During the walk, although the security was disrupted there wasn’t any danger, they passed by Hürrem Sultan Hamam and Dursun told Obama about many traditional and cultural details in Turkish culture.
The protocol visitors such as state ministers take private permission and give their names to enter Hagia Sophia Museum, which was a mosque during the Ottoman era. "In the past, important people had to ask for assistance in their visit to Hagia Sophia. Starting during Selim III’s era, when the Europeanization began and the procedure gained pace. The officers of the museum were informed of which ambassador, captains, architects and photographers would visit Hagia Sophia. Visitors were accepted as long as it was not during prayer time. Hagia Sophia created a milestone for the tourism sector in Turkey, Dursun said.
It’s place for 2010 culture capital projects
Hagia Sophia is benefiting from the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Agency’s, or ECOC, budget.
The scaffolding that has been inside the museum for a long time has been removed. Now visible are the muezzin (preacher) gathering place, more of the dome and the coronation platform.
With the budget determined for the Hagia Sophia museum, restoration of the dome, the small domes and other inner parts have gained pace.
Dursun said there is a big lighting project covering the façades of Topkapı Palace, Sultanahmet Mosque and Hagia Sophia Museum. By separating the entrance and the exit places of the museum the circulation of people has gained speed.
Renovating the chandeliers is also included in the 2010 ECOC budget. The restoration work is done under the supervision of Culture Ministry’s building survey register and renovation management.
’Hagia Sophia dialogues’
Dursun said although Hagia Sophia is very important for the Turkish public, they are not well informed about the works inside the museum, that’s why on the days when the museum is closed the management of the museum started Hagia Sophia dialogues to raise more awareness.
The dialogues, organized under the name of ’Space, time and people,’ are planned and managed by Dursun. He said the conferences turned into sightseeing tours that inform visitors about the historic works and their specialties. The management started asking people to make reservations after more than 200 people attended one of the conferences.
During the dialogues, they also offer health treatments and open the doors to the historic fountains for participants to try water in Hagia Sophia. After the water was sponsored by the Hamidiye water brand, the museum placed officers by the fountains to offer water from special glasses. "Foreigners are really amazed with the fountains and our service," Dursun said, adding that the drinking water offers are a special memory for visitors.
Not many people know it, but Hagia Sophia also has a library inside. Renovations for the historic library, including renewal of the aged marble, tiles and wood paneling, are included within the 2010 ECOC budget.