An architectural jewel and witness to history’s about-turns, Hagia Sophia, the sixth century Byzantine cathedral at the junction between Europe and Asia once again faces its fate as a Turkish court is set to rule Friday on a 1934 presidential decree converting the site into a museum.
An architectural icon at the junction between Asia and Europe, Hagia Sophia became a museum in 1934 and is at the centre of a very political decision concerning its status.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move to convert the Istanbul landmark into a mosque has sparked international concerns, with UNESCO warning that status changes could trigger a heritage review and Moscow reiterating that the building was a “world masterpiece” that has “sacred value” for Russians.
It’s the latest episode in the rich history of this sixth century Byzantine edifice that has overseen the rampages of wars, conquests and attempts to appropriate its symbolic power.
Construction of the current cathedral began in 532 with the Byzantine Emperor Justinian entrusting architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles with a mission to build the largest Christian edifice in the world. Nothing was deemed too demanding or too much to fulfill this mission: hundred Hellenistic columns from the temple of Artemis in Ephesus, green marble from Thessaly, white marble from Marmara, pink marble from Synada, yellow marble from Africa, black marble from the Pyrenees, black stones from the Bosphorus region…building materials were shipped in from across the world.
The largest dome in the world
“Justinian had a breathtaking basilica built,” said Frédéric Hitzel, a researcher and specialist in Ottoman history at the Paris-based CNRS (French National Centre for Scientific Research). “Visitors are impressed by its dimensions, in particular by its dome, which was the largest in the world at the time (55 metres high, 30 metres in diameter) and which remained so until the construction of Saint Peter’s in Rome a thousand years later”.
It took a total of just under six years for the more than 10,000 workers and 100 master builders to build Hagia Sophia, which in ancient Greek means “divine wisdom”. After its inauguration in 537, the church became the seat of the Orthodox patriarchate and hosted the coronation of Byzantine emperors.
It has a long and distinguished history. Partly destroyed by numerous earthquakes, it was systematically rebuilt. But it was also plundered by the Crusaders during the sack of Constantinople in 1204. Its riches, especially the precious materials of its altar, were much soughtafter. The basilica then became a Roman Catholic cathedral until the departure of the occupants in 1261.
The fall of Constantinople
In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. While most of the city’s Christian sites were looted, Sultan Mehmed II ordered that Hagia Sophia be preserved and then transformed into a mosque. This marked the beginning of a new era for the basilica, to which a minaret was added.
“Mehmed II had the imperial palace of Topkapi built nearby and thus went to prayer every Friday in procession,” said Hitzel. “Hagia Sophia then served as a model for the construction of other mosques, such as the Suleymaniye Mosque built between 1550 and 1557 by the famous architect Sinan and the Sultanahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque, inaugurated in 1616.”
Over the centuries, three more minarets were added to Hagia Sophia and the Christian mosaics, which Mehmed II had left untouched, were eventually covered with plaster from 1750 onward. Numerous restorations were undertaken to keep the building standing, such as between 1847 and 1849, under Sultan Abdulmecid, who had the dome and vaults consolidated and revised the interior and exterior decoration. Part of the thick whitewash that covered the mosaics was then removed.
Ataturk makes an offering ‘to mankind’
The tumultuous history of Hagia Sophia took a new turn in 1934 when the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decided to “offer it to humanity” by turning the mosque into a museum. Its restoration, between 1930 and 1935, uncovered the mosaics, considered the epitome of Byzantine art.
“Atatürk, who was very secular, wanted to see his country enter into modernity and for him, this meant the symbol of a country open and ready to welcome the Christians of the world,” explained Hitzel. During the Great Depression of 1929, making Hagia Sophia a museum helped to attract foreign visitors and investors, to Istanbul.
Today, Hagia Sophia is still a museum visited by millions of tourists every year. Last year, it was the most visited tourist attraction in Turkey, with 3.8 million people viewing the site.
Nevertheless, Hagia Sophia has been the scene of several activities related to Islam in recent years. Since Erdogan came to power in 2003, these activities have multiplied inside Hagia Sophia, including Koran reading sessions and collective prayers in the square in front of the monument. In 2018, Erdogan himself read a verse from the Koran there.
Since 2005, associations have repeatedly taken legal action to demand a return to the status of a mosque, without success so far.
This article is a translation of the original in French.