The Reason I wrote The Istanbul Puzzle


Laurence O’Bryan

The Istanbul Puzzle

The Istanbul Puzzle

I have been fascinated by Istanbul since my first visit there in 1995. I had met the woman who became my wife, a Turkish fashion designer, in London and went to Istanbul to meet her family. I was struck when I went there not only by how friendly everyone was, but also by how prosperous the city was and by its stunning historical sites, on par in my view with anything in Rome or Cairo.

The Istanbul Puzzle, the opening novel in the Puzzle series I created after many visits to the city, features Hagia Sophia in many of its scenes. Hagia Sofia is the iconic symbol of Istanbul. It is also, without doubt, one of the most important and mysterious, yet largely unknown, buildings in the world.

Not only has it been in continuous use since the seventh century, it has also been the headquarters of both Sunni Islam, the seat of its last Caliphate, and before that the seat of a major Christian denomination, Orthodox Christianity.

Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by the first President of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, in 1935. Imagine the impact of Mussolini turning the Vatican into a museum to assess the impact of Atatürk’s decision. The goal of many Islamists, almost eighty years later, is the reestablishment of the Sunni Caliphate, which was removed from Hagia Sophia by Atatürk.

The building was originally named after Sophia, Holy Wisdom, a Greek Orthodox concept that reaches back to a time before Christianity. Its present incarnation is largely the structure dedicated on the December 27th 537AD. This version, which you can still visit, was, for almost a thousand years, the largest church or cathedral in all Christendom.

Hagia Sophia has survived earthquakes, riots and war. The purpose of this article however is not to reiterate a litany of facts about Hagia Sophia, but to explore one of its greatest mysteries; what lies beneath it?

Hagia Sophia is the only building designed as a great church not to have extensive and well-explored underground areas, whether they be crypts, burial chambers or catacombs.

Both the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, constructed at a similar time to the earliest incarnation of Hagia Sophia, in 326-330, and Old St. Peter’s in Rome, constructed 330-360, have original and extensive underground areas. The Church of The Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem has multiple underground areas. St Peter’s in Rome includes the underground tomb of St Peter and the catacombs within its boundaries. A crypt is a common part of the design of a great church.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

St. Paul’s in London has a crypt. Notre Dame in Paris has a crypt. Seville cathedral in Spain has a crypt. I could go on.

The underground areas are the most sacred parts of these buildings. It seems odd to me that there are no underground areas that the public is aware of, aside from a few drainage tunnels, under Hagia Sophia.

One possible explanation, of course, is that the ground Hagia Sophia is built on is unsuitable for underground construction. But that argument is blown out of the water, literally, by the existence of the Basilica Cistern, 150m away from Hagia Sophia. The Basilica Cistern is one the largest and most extensive ancient underground sites in the world. It is a vast underground chamber of almost 10,000 square metres containing a forest of 336 marble columns, each 9 metres high.

So did the famous designers of Hagia Sophia simply forget to design underground levels for Hagia Sophia? Or is there another explanation?

The Black Death was one of the most destructive epidemics ever to strike humanity. It raged in Europe around the year 1350AD. Constantinople was one of the largest cities on the European continent. It fell victim to the Black Death in 1347, probably due to maritime contacts with the Crimea, which was under siege then by the Mongols.

It is reported that over fifty per cent of the population of Constantinople died that year, including a son of the then Byzantine Emperor.

One of the first places to be used to bury victims, especially senior members of the clergy and the aristocracy would have been in any underground crypts in the Hagia Sophia complex. The complex included the hospital of Sampson, where some underground tunnels have been revealed within metres of Hagia Sophia.

I suggest that any original crypts under Hagia Sophia may have been used for the burial of prominent plague victims. Such crypts would then have been sealed up, for obvious reasons. But what happened next?

Hagia Sophia fell to the Ottoman Turks when the city around it, Constantinople, fell on the 29th of May 1453.

Mehmed the Conqueror’s Sufi instructor, Ak Semseddin was a physician as well as a mystic poet. Ak Semseddin preached the first Friday sermon at the former cathedral of Hagia Sophia after it was converted into a mosque. He would have understood the consequences of opening up the plague crypts under Hagia Sopha and would have been well placed to persuade Mehmed not to search too hard under the building.

A proper modern investigation, a geophysical survey using ground penetrating radar and the latest magnetometer equipment would likely reveal significant underground areas at Hagia Sophia. So far the Turkish authorities have not permitted such a project.

It is true that there has been some limited small-scale explorations under Hagia Sophia, a few narrow tunnels and cisterns have been discovered, but I believe it is time for the whole area to be properly explored and documented.

The publicity, and increase in tourists alone, would justify the costs. What is everyone afraid of? Hagia Sophia has been a museum for seventy five years.

Now is the time for a modern investigation of the likely underground areas at Hagia Sophia. We don’t know what they will find. But it is possible that there is something significant down there.

One rumour states that the Byzantine Imperial tombs under Hagia Sophia contain great treasures. Another states that the Devil is buried under there. Whatever the truth, this mystery is something that fascinated me since my first visit to the city. It also forms a key part of the mystery I created with The Istanbul Puzzle, the first novel in the Puzzle series.


The author of this piece, Laurence O’Bryan, had his first Puzzle series novel published in 2012. It is called The Istanbul Puzzle. His second, The Jerusalem Puzzle, was published in January 2013. His third, The Manhattan Puzzle, continuing the story, was published October 10, 2013. Follow Laurence on twitter for more.

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