When visiting Istanbul it’s impossible (and inadvisable) to miss the famed Hagia Sophia (in English, pronounced Eye-UH So-FE-uh). This engineering marvel has stood in a version of its current form since about 537 AD. Other buildings stood on this site as early as 360 AD. Needless to say, this building has been around for a LONG time and has actually even sported its current appearance and form for nearly 500 years. That’s pretty outstanding. For perspective, that’s twice as long as the United States has been in existence.

The Hagia Sophia was built as an Eastern Orthodox church, was used as a Catholic cathedral, then converted to a mosque, and it’s been a museum since the mid 1930s. The first Turkish president and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, oversaw the last transformation. Since then the building has suffered from neglect and was actually placed on the World Monuments Watch list in 1996 and again in 1998. Massive resources, both monetary and human, are required to keep a building of this size, scope, and complexity in tip-top shape. Sometimes the will is there to make it happen. Sometimes it is not.

With the help of outsiders, the Hagia Sophia was restored once again in 2006, though it continues to require heavy upkeep due to its size and age. The awe inspiring (and record setting) domes and arches inside of the building require heavy maintenance to keep them from crumbling and cracking. Over 3 million visitors walk through the Hagia Sophia annually so its popularity also puts it in danger. That much traffic milling through such an old structure is bound to eventually take its toll.

We visited in June of 2010. The summers are temperate in Istanbul therefore the Hagia Sophia was swimming with visitors. We had to wait to get into the building. Once we were inside, though, people spread out so it wasn’t too crowded. The main chamber, which sits under the mosque’s famed dome, is huge. Its highest point, from floor to ceiling, is about 100 feet. That’s approximately nine stories tall, if you’re keeping count. From the outside the building seems like a massive pile of bricks. It’s only once you’re inside that you get a sense of the true scope and beauty of the place.

If you’re ever in Istanbul, you’d be remiss if you didn’t visit the Hagia Sophia. There’s a small entrance fee to pay to enter, but it’s nominal. By visiting, you’re donating to the restoration and upkeep fund that helps the building remain standing and operational. It takes a village, sometimes a global village, to preserve a historical monument. While Istanbul is filled with ancient sites and objects, this structure, which has been around for much of the city’s history, serves as an anchor and lens through which to view all the other history that occurred around these massive brick walls, under its glorious dome.