By Anastasia Kaliabakos
The Hagia Sophia, a remarkable model for Orthodox churches and beautiful example of Byzantine architecture, has recently been in the news due to its sudden conversion from a historic museum to a mosque. Located in Istanbul, Turkey, this structure has stood the test of time, serving as a place of worship for millions of people and a beacon of hope to the Christian world. The conversion of the basilica to a mosque has angered and disappointed not only the Orthodox Christian community, but much of the world.
The first Hagia Sophia was commissioned by Emperor Constantius II and built in 360 AD. Back then, it was called “Magna Ecclesia,” meaning “Great Church,” due to both its incredible physical size and its influence as a place of worship. After the exile of Patriarch John Chrysostom, riots ensued, which resulted in the arson of the Magna Ecclesia. It was completely burned to the ground in 404 AD.
The second church was built in 415 AD, and was commissioned by Theodosius II. The design of this church differed from the first one in order to make it more stable and able to withstand attack. However, once again riots broke out in Constantinople, and the church was again burned to the ground. Some relics still remain from the church, such as soffits and columns.
In 532 AD, not too long after the destruction of the second basilica, Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of the third and final version of the Hagia Sophia (a name which, in Greek, means “holy wisdom”). The construction of the church was a difficult and tremendous undertaking which involved a wide assortment of people and laborers (over ten thousand workers). The inside of the church was covered with porphyry, a stone that was widely used in churches and basilicas at the time (so much so that it has now become a very rare material) and golden mosaics. Various monuments depicting the strength of Justinian I were erected on the Hagia Sophia grounds. In 537 AD the Hagia Sophia was opened to the public once again. People all over the empire regarded the church as a sanctuary and safe place of refuge and worship, and it was treated as such for centuries.
In 1202 AD the Fourth Crusade began. Following the capture of Constantinople, the Crusaders ransacked and occupied the Hagia Sophia, converting it into a Roman Catholic cathedral. After the city was reclaimed decades later, the church stood desecrated, vandalized, and in need of repair. Emperor Andronicus II Palaeologus ordered the restoration of the church in the 1260s.
In the spring of 1453 Constantinople fell to an invasion of Ottoman forces. The Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, ordered the unencumbered pillaging of the city for three days, as was custom after a victory. Hagia Sophia at first became a place of refuge for those who could not fight against the Ottomans— women, children, the elderly, and the sick. However, the church was not exempt from the looting, and the doors were battered open not long afterward. Not only did the Ottomans regard the physical decorations and monuments in the church to be the greatest valuables in the city, but they also considered the people inside as a source of labor. The weak and old were murdered and women and children were taken away as slaves. The people of Constantinople were forbidden from worshipping God, as the sultan declared, “There is no god but God, and Muhammed is his messenger.” The Hagia Sophia was subsequently turned into a mosque.
Centuries later, in 1935, Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum. This action demonstrated Atatürk’s desire to respect all faith traditions and to take into account the diversity of thought that contributed to Turkey’s history—earning him the title “Father of the Turks.” Until today, the museum has been accessible to all and is recognized by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. Over three million people a year go to the Hagia Sophia museum to learn about its rich history and its role in the world.
Recently, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, formally changed the status of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. This decision has disappointed citizens and politicians of all ideological backgrounds, from Vice President Joe Biden to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Biden said, “the Hagia Sophia is an architectural marvel and treasured holy site for people of many faiths. For the last 85 years, the Hagia Sophia has been a museum, allowing people from around the world to visit, admire, and pray in this holy space, which since 1985 has also had the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site.” AHEPA, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, condemns the conversion and hopes that the Turkish president will reverse his declaration in order to maintain the memory of the Hagia Sophia as a basilica and great feat of Greek and Byzantine architecture: “Hagia Sophia is a gift to all humankind. Its value is universal and it must be preserved as such.”
HAGIA SOPHIA DOME interior. Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis (CC-BY-2.0).