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The ever-changing face of the Hagia Sophia

Istanbul, Turkey, as Susan Moody identifies, is the ‘constant beating of the wave of the East against the rock of the West.’ A perfect blend of tradition and contemporary, Istanbul offers a constant time travel between the past, present and future, owing to its capricious history and concomitant architecture. It is often referred to as the ‘harmony of opposites’ and true to this apophthegm, there lies a quaint edifice, an architectural marvel, dominating the city’s skyline with a saga that transcends all borders-The Hagia Sophia (literally meaning ‘Holy Wisdom’).

The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey

Also referred to as Ayasofya in Turkish and Sancta Sofia in Latin, it was originally built as a Christian church in the 6th century CE. Since then it has served as a church, a mosque and, from 1935 onwards, a museum, earning for itself the title of a ‘UNESCO World Heritage Site’. Known for being a reflection of various religious changes that have occurred in Turkey, the Hagia Sophia now finds itself mirroring the country’s Islamist policies, as the Turkish Government on July 10, 2020 permanently converted it into a mosque, again!

The conversion was received rather ambivalently; Turkish Islamists rejoiced, while many secular Turkish inhabitants and much of the international community expressed their dismay, for the move marked a setback for one of the world’s greatest architectural and cultural landmarks.

Retracing the Journey of the Hagia Sophia- a 1500-year long Legacy

I. A sixth century Eastern Orthodox cathedral:

  1. The Hagia Sophia was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, in the first half of the 6th century. Interestingly, this was the third cathedral to be built at that very site.

  2. Touted as the ‘premier cathedral’ of the Roman Empire, the Hagia Sophia was designed by mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and physicist Isidore of Miletu, its construction, completed in 5 years by more than 10,000 labourers. It was reopened in December AD 537.

  3. The church stood as a Byzantine structure for almost 900 years, barring the time between 1204 and 1261, when the Crusaders raided the city and it became a Roman Catholic cathedral. However, in 1261 Constantinople was re-captured by the Byzantines who restored the cathedral and held force till the Ottomans arrived.

The Hagia Sophia as built by Justinian

Inside Justinian’s Hagia Sophia

Byzantine mosaic of Jesus Christ in Hagia Sophia

II. The Ottoman conquest:

  1. The Ottoman conquest in 1453 AD saw Constantinople renamed to Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia converted into an imperial mosque by Sultan Mehmed II.

  2. Medieval architect Sinan was commissioned to renovate the church turned mosque. An alcove facing the direction of Mecca, known as the ‘mihrab’ and a pulpit or ‘minbar’ (used for giving the Friday sermon) were added. Calligraphic medallions of the names of God, Muhammad and the first four caliphs of Islam, and four new minarets were installed.

  3. The mosaics depicting Christian figures such as Jesus, Mary, saints and angels as well as several Byzantine rulers were mostly left intact and not completely plastered over until the 1840s when Sultan Abdülmecid II hired the Italian Fossati brothers to renovate and restore the mosque building.

Addition of 4 minarets after the Ottoman conquest of Hagia Sophia

Calligraphic Medallions installed in Hagia Sophia

Mihrab installed in Hagia Sophia

III. A Secular Museum:

  1. After the fall of the Ottoman empire following the First World War, the new Republic of Turkey was founded on secular principles, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

  2. Ataturk abolished the Caliphate and launched a strong secularization drive in the country as he closed down the Hagia Sophia mosque in 1930, 7 years after the foundation of the new Turkish Republic. 5 years later, the Hagia Sophia was re-opened as a museum.

  3. Its composite history stood to be the perfect embodiment of cultural harmony thereby embellishing the power of secular modernity.

Since then, the Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is Turkey’s most visited monuments and a symbol of Christian-Muslim co-existence. It attracts myriads of tourists every year, last year alone being 3.7 million!

The Hagia Sophia Museum

However, on 10th July 2020, the Council of State (Turkey’s top administrative court), annulled Ataturk’s 1934 government decree that converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum, ruling that it was unlawful and paving way for the monument’s conversion back to a mosque. Following which, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a decree on the conversion and declared the Hagia Sophia a mosque.

Museum to Mosque…all of a sudden?

Before you list the said conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque as another 2020 doing, it is important to note that every transformation over the last 1500 years, has resulted in an incomplete and somewhat contested change.

That being said, the upswell of religious sentiments in Turkey have also been long underway.

Here’s how…

  • 1990s saw a prayer space open in a passageway through one of the minarets, for Turkish Muslims to pray. It also housed the office of the Hagia Sophia’s prayer leader, a position supported by Sultan Mehmed’s original arrangement.

  • Since 2005 there have been continuous appeals made by Islamist groups towards reverting the status of the museum back to that of a mosque for, they believe that it marks the legacy of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II-the Conqueror. In fact, in 2018, the Constitutional Court rejected an application on the same. Also for much of the 21st century Turkey’s society has witnessed a rise in nationalistic fervor, with a growing recognition of the Ottoman era as being a fundamental part of the country’s history and pressing for the structure’s use as a mosque.

  • Over the years, enormous crowds have gathered annually on May 31, the anniversary of the Ottoman conquest, to pray in the streets and plazas outside the Hagia Sophia along with Quran recitations and Calligraphy exhibitions within its walls.

  • Even before the final conversion, several proponents of the church are claimed to have set up websites with images of the minarets obliterated and a cross reinstalled on the crest of the dome, in the hope to restore the lost Byzantine structure.

The Legal Tussle

Surprisingly since the last 15 years, the Turkish Association for the ‘Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment’ have been knocking on the doors of courts to abrogate Ataturk’s decree.

Most recently, it argued that Ataturk’s government lacked the right to overrule the wishes of Sultan Mehmed II, even suggesting that the then President’s signature on the document was forged. They based this argument on discrepancies in Ataturk’s signature on official documents.

On July 10, Turkey’s top administrative court annulled the said decree while declaring it illegal and not in compliance with the law thereby making way for the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque.

Any comments Mr. President?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stand on the conversion of the Hagia Sophia is indeed a matter of some conjecture. The leader, who is touted to have championed Islam and religious observance during his 17-year rule, is all in support of the conversion which is stupefying, considering that just a year ago he is said to have stated otherwise.

  • Possibility of an unstable political standing? His contradicting statements insinuate a shaky political standing and the need for him satiate his nationalistic base. By reinstating the issue of Muslim’s being able to once again pray in the Hagia Sophia, the support of pious voters was analogous.

  • Sultan Mehmud’s will: As he announced the conversion in his speech to the nation, he made no mention of Ataturk. He was seen quoting Sultan Mehmed’s will, calling down frightful curses on anyone who would change the status of the Hagia Sophia from that of a mosque.

  • A tool of distraction? Several analysts believe that the President is using the Hagia Sophia debate to consolidate his conservative fervour and to divert attention from Turkey’s economy; which stands severely dinted due to rapidly shrinking foreign reserves, currency devaluation and inflation. A survey revealed that 44% of people believed that the conversion was brought to light to divert voters’ attention from the country’s economic woes.

President Erdogan however ensured that the conversion will not affect tourist activity and that the mosque will be open to tourists when not used for prayer.

The World reacts…

The conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a secular museum to a mosque has been lambasted by the international community, as dismay, regret and disappointment pour in from across the world.

  1. Church Leaders:

    1. The Russian Orthodox Church accused Turkey of ignoring the voice of multitudes of Christians while expressing its dismay at the conversion.

    2. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of around 300 million Christians worldwide, stated that the move would ‘fracture’ West from East.

    3. Pope Francis too expressed his ‘pain.’

  2. UNESCO:

    1. UNESCO in a strong statement said, “We deeply regretted the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion” while appealing for “The universal value of World Heritage to be preserved.”

  3. Greece and the EU:

    1. Turkey’s neighbour Greece termed the conversion as an ‘open provocation to the civilised world,’ while the EU’s foreign policy chief expressed his regret.

  4. The United States of America:

    1. According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the conversion would diminish the ability of the Hagia Sophia to serve as a ‘much-needed’ bridge between those belonging to varied faiths.

  5. India:

    1. In a surprising turn of events, certain cabals of Indians, have drawn a parallel between the Hagia Sophia Mosque rehabilitation and the Ayodhaya land dispute, a comparison which seems to hold little meaning owing to a discrepancy in the historical perspectives backing the two events.

The Hagia Sophia- Today?

  • Despite the conversion, it will be open to all, except during prayers.

  • The ticket counter outside the erstwhile museum has been removed and the marble floors inside the monument have been obnubilated with a turquoise coloured carpet, as it becomes a house of worship.

  • During prayer times, the Christian iconography along with some of the mosaics which are positioned in the direction faced during prayer, will be curtained off or covered by some means. However, outside of prayers, everything will remain uncovered.

  • In addition to the aforesaid alterations, the management of the Hagia Sophia has been transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

For the last 1500 years the Hagia Sophia has undergone consequential changes in its status and functionality, each of them having had a profound impact on not only Turkey but also the rest of the world. With its splendid beauty and deep overlay of the histories of the East and the West- Islam and Christianity, the Hagia Sophia stands as a paragon of cultural co-existence and religious harmony. Its conversion to a mosque leaves its significance as a World Heritage Site unmarred, while adding additional responsibility on the Turkish Government, as its custodian.

The decision to convert the Hagia Sophia to a mosque from a museum has caused a chasmic divide between Secularists and Religious Fundamentalists. Allow yourselves to cogitate the frangible yet herculean journey of the Hagia Sophia, while delving into its most intricate nuances, minarets and mosaics. Which side are you on?


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