Recently converted into a mosque Hagia Sophia drew a lot of attention of the world, situated in Istanbul, Turkey. Ever since the element of religion is involved in any structure or laws, it becomes the hot topic of debates and discussions.
Hagia Sophia is UNESCO heritage site of Istanbul, for over a millennium it was the largest cathedral in entire Christendom.
We will try to cover its journey from the Church to the Mosque then to the Museum and finally again to the Mosque. It has the history of around one and a half millennia, served as a political, religious and artistic purpose to the civilizations who ruled that area moreover it has also acted as a source of much scholarly insight of its historical period. Not only that it reflects the religious and political changes of the past.
Built in 6th Century AD (532 AD to 537 AD) as a patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople, by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I.
Hagia Sophia — Holy Wisdom in Greek — was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, second only to the Pope in Rome till the schism in 1054 AD, and then the head of the Orthodox Church.
It remained the largest church of the Eastern Roman Empire-Byzantine Empire for thousand-year until the Seville Cathedral was completed by 1520.
Though not the first, it is the third successful structure on the same place, earlier two were destroyed, one was razed by the rioters and other was also destroyed in a fire during an insurgency.
Cathedral Architecture of Hagia Sophia
Originally built on a pagan temple, Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom in Greek”, the land has always been a witness to the grandeur of this architectural marvel. Built within the short period of six years by the building’s architects—Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus—are well known for their familiarity with mechanics and mathematics.
It has 32 meters(105 feet) huge dome supported by pendentives and two side domes. The mosaics which dotted the building are the works of masters, the altar was of solid gold and 40 kg of silver was used in the structure. Beautifully constructed and still maintaining its glory and grandeur.
With the time the structure was rebuilt, modified and updated, keeping the foundation and main building the same. It was looted in 1204 by the Venetians and the Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade.
Why did Hagia Sophia turn into Mosque?
Turkish conquered the land of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II entered the land by crushing the walls of the capital, defeated the ruler and prayed in Hagia Sophia to mark his victory and inception of Ottoman Empire.
There is no religious or Islamic tradition to pray in the worship place of other religions, but it was the culture of the time. Taking over the worship place of land was the sign of power and victory. That was the time of conquest and rule, not the constitution or democracy.
You can find many examples in history of mosques being converted into churches and many temples being converted into churches or mosques.
Hagia Sophia was repurposed as Mosques by Mehmed II. With the addition of a wooden minaret (to summon prayer), a great chandelier, a mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca), and a minbar (pulpit). Wooden minaret did not survive so it was replaced by the new ones with time.
After witnessing around a thousand years of Christianity and serving as the prime Cathederal for such a long period Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, with the change of ruler the identity was also changed. With the series of modifications in the structure, it remained the largest main mosque of Turkey until the construction of Blue Mosque in 1616.
Why did it turn into Museum?
After the first world war, Ottoman Caliphate was abolished and the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, it was turned into a secular state and many sanctions were forced on the people like pardha was banned, many mosques were demolished, the language of azan was changed. Religion was totally removed from the domain and there was an aggressive push toward secularism.
In 1934, Turkish president Kamal Ataturk who was an extreme secularist ordered to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum, it showed the break from the Ottoman past and a signal of a new Turkey. why? It has various theories, one says that in order to be a part of Balkan pact, Turkey had to prove its secularity and also it ensured the preservation of Hagia Sophia from decay.
On February 1, 1935, Hagia Sophia was opened as a museum, which remained in controversies for decades. In 1985 Hagia Sophia was designated as a component of world heritage sites under UNESCO.
Why is it being converted to a Mosque again?
Recently in 2020 President Recep Tayyib Edgoran took a controversial decision of converting Hagia Sophia into a Mosque, and Islamic prayer was held soon after the announcement. Hagia Sophia is a famous tourist destination, it remains open for the tourists.
In the 2019 municipal elections, Edgoran expressed his wish to convert Hagia Sophia into a Mosque, which he ended up losing. Later on, Edgoran’s reiteration of converting Hagia Sophia coincided with US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Edgoran not only repudiates the secular roots of Turkey but also reconciles with the Byzantine history.
Observers believe that his idea of converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque is closely related to his political agendas. With this decision, he not only challenged the Ataturk idea of secularism but also the dynamics of Muslim-Christian relationships and the world.
It is also his attempt to reinforce his leadership in the fragmented Islamic world, by reviving the memory of Caliphate history and stirring the controversy, he is giving a sign to the world.
No wonder then that Erdogan exclaimed: “The conquest of Istanbul and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque are among the most glorious chapters of Turkish history.”
During the first Khutba or sermon, the imam steps up on the “mimber” with the ottoman sword in his hand indicating the strong reminder of the Ottoman return and new Turkish state.
Hagia Sophia is a symbol of a millennia of Christianity, and its conversion now, after such improved relations between the two religions, is a testament that Erdogan wants to turn the clock back.
Religion is a matter of private relevance which need not be dictated by politics. Any state giving prominence to extremism, either extreme secularism, which confines people’s freedom to practice religion, or extreme religionism, that undermines any other religion, may sow the seeds of uncertainty in the hearts of people and weaken the structure of the state.
Religion should remain outside the realm of politics, whenever introduced, religion is used to play with the emotions of people. Politicians often misguide people for their own benefits and ultimately damage the thread of coherence and solidarity that exists between people.