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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

What is Hagia Sophia?

Hagia Sophia is a Late Antique church and UNESCO World Heritage site that has served as a mosque and museum since it was founded in the 4th century.

Hagia Sophia

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Hagia Sophia History

Believe it or not, up until recently it was unusual to see thousands of worshippers praying in the Church of Holy Wisdom, best known by its Greek name, the Hagia Sophia. For perhaps the first 1,600 years of its history, the Aya Sofya, as it’s called in Turkish, was a place of worship. It was first constructed as a Roman Christian cathedral in around 360 and remained one of the main centres of Byzantine religious life up until Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453 – save for the 57-year interlude of the Fourth Crusade’s occupation of the city, which saw it temporarily converted to a Catholic place of worship until the ousting of the Latins in 1261. Upon his capture of the city, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II converted the cathedral into a grand imperial mosque. However, the Ottomans, like the Romans before them, could not last forever. The Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum under secular Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1935, and that appeared to be that.

However, the state and military mechanisms preventing parties sympathetic to religious and social conservatism from attaining power in the Turkish Republic, also could not last forever. The Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi – AKP or ‘Justice and Development Party’ in English – swept to power in 2002 and has never looked back. As the dominant political party of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan strengthened its position, calls for the Hagia Sophia to revert to use as a mosque grew louder from figures including Erdoğan’s deputy, Bülent Arınç. Erdoğan himself recited the first verse of the Koran in the Hagia Sophia and described the decision to turn it into a museum as an error. The controversial decision to return the building to a functioning mosque was confirmed in 2020 without the necessary dialogue with UNESCO, as the Hagia Sophia is a World Heritage Site.

Ironically, in their rush to re-Islamise the space, Turkish religious officials have accidentally followed the Orthodox Christian religious practice of veiling the Christian religious iconography depicted in mosaics. Mehmed II the Conqueror, to whom Erdoğan dedicated the site’s reversion, never ordered the covering of Christian artwork, rather being awed by the beauty of the Hagia Sophia’s architecture and religious decoration. The decision to have movable drapes in place to veil the icons visible from the ground floor during times of Muslim worship mirrors the Byzantine tradition of covering and revealing icons to emphasise their power. A similar knee-jerk decision to cover the icons came about when they were plastered over in 1739 – only for it to become clear that nothing preserves a mosaic better than plastering it!

The upper gallery of the Hagia Sophia is also home to a range of Christian artwork and iconography, as well as Old Norse graffiti dating back to the days of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard, a military corps of Norsemen and Anglo-Saxons. Suffice to say that possession of this place of worship has often been contested and its status challenged, be it by antisocial Vikings, iconoclasts, invading Catholics, or Islamic revivalists. This is the third iteration of the Hagia Sophia, the second being destroyed by the Nika riots of 532. Earthquakes repeatedly collapsed sections of the dome, and renowned Ottoman architect Sinan heavily strengthened and buttressed the building in the 1560s and ’70s. So, throughout millennia, the Hagia Sophia has stood up to change and upheaval and emerged stronger. The 2020 mosque controversy is simply the latest about-turn in the long history of this incredibly resilient and symbolic place of worship.

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