There has been a church on this site since 360 CE, which the city was founded by the Emperor Constantine. Destroyed by earthquakes and riots, the church was rebuilt several times, with the present structure commissioned by Emperor Justinian in 532 AD. The dome was rebuilt after an earthquake in 563 AD, and had major repairs in the 9th and 14th centuries, but the dome, arches, and marble remained essentially unchanged for over 900 years. As fashions came and went, different mosaics were installed, usually depicting Mary, Jesus, various saints, and the emperors and empresses. The city was attacked during the Latin Crusades and some of the mosaics removed and carried to Vienna, which probably saved them from later destruction.
When the Ottoman hordes conquered Constantinople, they converted this oldest Christian church into a mosque in 1453, adding minarets, a minbar, and the other parts of mosque architecture. Unfortunately, they also plastered over the mosaics throughout the cathedral, concealing them from view for nearly 700 years.
After Turkish independence, Kemal Ataturk turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum, so that this historical site, which bridges two eras and sits and the crossroads of two cultures, two continents, could be open to the public.
In recent years, the mosaics are being restored. Since we were able to attend in mid-week instead of the weekend, I was able to wander and view the beauty at my leisure. The church/mosque/museum continues to be one of the most visited sites in the area, and is on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Unfortunately, in recent years sectarianism is raising its always-ugly head. Muslim groups are demanding that the site be returned to its recent function as a mosque, claiming that keeping it as a museum is an insult to Islam and an example of subjugation of the West onto their culture. Christian groups are claiming that it was stolen by and forced into conversion by the Muslim after Constantinople, now Istanbul, was captured, and want the Turkish government to return it to its rightful 1,400 year history as a church site, and feel that it is a litmus test of Turkey’s willingness to be an open participant in the European Union.
Personally, I would tend to side with the Christians as the site was originally one of the oldest, and certainly one of the most important churches. However, as I am against churches in general, and feel that its history outweighs a centuries-old claim, that it should remain a museum for all to enjoy and as an example of what secularism can achieve.
- Now available: Photographs of the Hagia Sophia by A. Cemal Ekin (artstor.wordpress.com)
- Hagia Sophia : A Symbol for Secularism? (mitsloanblog.typepad.com)
- Photo a day, May 9, 2012 – Aya Sophia, Istanbul (travelingwithkrushworth.wordpress.com)
- Take me back to Constantinople (emsontheroad.com)
- The Sultanahment “Blue” Mosque in Istanbul (twodifferentgirls.com)
- Greatest Church Soon To Be Mega Mosque? (counterjihadreport.com)
- Now available: Photographs of the Hagia Sophia by A. Cemal Ekin (indianajen.com)