Our first experience of St. Sophia’s was after dark, we decided to climb the bell tower to get a view over the city at night. A UNESCO World Heritage site, St Sophia’s is mostly hidden by the bell tower and its surrounding walls. The domes, a mix of green and gold, did protrude above the wall but I just hadn’t really noticed them in the darkness. It was a cold evening and the breeze was like ice against our faces and hands. We bought our ticket and started making our way up.
The stairs were more narrow than we had experienced in Kiev’s other bell towers, but they were still stone and the walls were still white-washed. After a short time we left the stairway and found ourselves out in the main tower. From here up, the stairs would be a small squarely spiralled staircase set in one corner. The floor of each level was covered in smooth white tiles and layer of snow which made them deathly slippery! The tower was completely open, all the way to the top, and each level comprised of a narrow walkway around the inside perimeter. Each level had four large archways which looked out over the city in each direction.
As we climbed the stairs and made our way up the different levels we found ourselves shuffling around the walkways to avoid slipping over, enjoying the view from each archway before heading up the next section of steps. At the top we had a good view over the twinkling cityscape, the windows from surrounding buildings lit up in the early evening darkness – but most impressive was the view done towards St. Michael’s Monastery.
Directly below us was the Christmas tree, sparkling in the middle of the square. Leading back from this was the line of market stalls, the walkway between lighted overhead by bright white snowflakes; the street lights offered a softer orange glow over the surrounding buildings. At the very top sat St. Michael’s Golden Domed Monastery. Illuminated, the blue and white exterior was bright against the dark sky and the golden domes glittered and gleamed spectacularly.
It was a stunning view and we enjoyed watching the tiny, ant-like people going about their lives below, enjoying the festivities the city had to offer on this cold clear evening. Out of the opposite archway we got our first proper glimpse of the cathedral itself. From the top level we looked down on it, with each of the lower levels dropping our view point as we descended the tower.
The building’s vast exterior is painted white, reflecting the surrounding lights gave it a slight yellow glow. It is less decorated on the outside than both St. Michael’s or St. Andrew’s but its sheer size and the addition of various turrets and towers adds a certain grandeur to it. It has one large golden dome in the middle, which was surrounded by 6 symmetrically placed green domes, smaller than the centre-piece and all topped with gold detailing, crosses and a light dusting of snow. After taking some photos, we relented to the cold wind and made out way back down the remaining levels.
The next morning we returned, this time to enter the walled grounds and visit the cathedral itself. It was another snowy morning, the bright white sky sat high, bathing everything in a stark morning light. The grounds were blanketed in snow which was, apart from a couple of footprint trails, untouched and we enjoyed wandering around the outside in the peace of a quiet morning. In the daylight we noticed that the bell tower was painted bright powder blue, a colour which was not carried over onto the cathedral walls. Some parts of the main building’s exterior had been left uncovered, displaying the intricate stonework underneath.
We had a nosey around the Refectory; it had been set up as an open, airy museum space exhibiting artifacts from the long history of the cathedral. Its name comes from the 6th century Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) with the meaning Holy Wisdom. This cathedral is dedicated to the Holy Wisdom, rather than a specific saint named Sophia. The foundations were laid 1011, with the cathedral taking two decades build.
Next we headed into the main building; the large wooden doors lead us into the main body of the cathedral. The painted frescoes gave it a dark appearance but it still felt bright and open despite this. Large stone columns rise out of the iron clad floor, creating vast archways in the ceiling. Glass display cases have been built into the floor making visible the original stonework and mosaic tiling. It was amazing to see those small blue mosaic tiles, still intact and vibrant in colour after 1000 years, having spent hundreds of those years being walked on, on a daily basis.
At the front was the usual shrine of ornate gold detailing, framing the painted icons of prominent figures. The light filtered in through the small windows and bounced off the reflective surface of the gold quite intensely for such a dim room. The walls were covered in Frescoes, every inch of them painted to depict scenes from the bible and various saints. Most of them had been repainted in the 19th Century but a few of the originals from the 11th Century survived and were visible in various sections of the cathedral. This officially became the oldest fresco we have seen in person, the previous record was held by a little Danish church dating from the 12th Century! I’m not religious but the sheer age of these things always impresses me!
After trying to take in as much detail from the lower level, we made our way up the wide stone steps to the balcony level above. This allowed us to look more closely at the paintings tucked away in obscure corners of the ceiling and under archways, as well as gaining a different perspective on the layout of the building itself. Photography is not allowed within the cathedral and sneaky photos never offer enough time to consider framing and composition so they rarely come out any good… but we snuck one anyway (terrible people that we are!)
Sadly we had a plane to catch that afternoon and subsequently didn’t get to spend nearly as much time exploring this place as we would have liked. There were several large exhibitions on the upper level that we didn’t go into, and probably a lot of little features that we missed while walking round. It was such a beautiful, well preserved and curated building that we have already decided that we will make a point of returning one day to soak it all in properly.