Hagia Sophia (literally ‘Holy Wisdom’), grabbed the world’s attention recently with the controversial decision of the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to turn the Hagia Sophia Museum into the Hagia Sophia grand mosque. The move is significant as the museum was the symbol of the secularisation process of initiated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and is one of the bricks in the Islamisation of Turkey. The process of conversion of the museum into a mosque actually began much earlier in the 1980’s, as the Sultan’s lodge, one of the annexes of Hagia Sophia was opened for Islamic prayers, signifying the increasing presence of the Muslim right-wingers in the Turkish Government. In 2012, the speakers in the minarets again chimed with the Azan (Islamic call to prayer) after about 80 years. This was another moment towards turning it into a mosque. The Dual Azan originally conceived by Mehmet the Conqueror, and brought to fruition by Sultan Ahmet I; again restated. The muezzins of Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmet (Blue) mosque, call out the Azaan in perfect synchrony through the speakers in the minarets at full volume. It seems as if there is a competition between them about who can attract more worshippers.



The first church at the site was the Magna Ecclesia (‘Great Church’) built during the reign of Eastern Roman Emperor Constantius II in 360 (allegedly in place of a pagan temple, although no proof has been unearthed). After it was destroyed in an earthquake, the secomd church having the same name as the former one was erected by Theodosius II in 415. The current building was constructed by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I after the second church was razed during the Nika riots(532) between 532-537.

Architects Isidore of Miletus and Anthemis of Tralles jointly designed the magnificent building. It continued to be the largest church for 1000 years, until the Seville cathedral came up in 1520. Symbolising the epitome of Byzantine architecture, it occupied ‘a special place in the Christian world’ and is said to have ‘changed the history of architecture’. After Justinian, each emperor added their own touch to the church- mosaics, geometrical patterns, wine pots, and decorations, columns, et. al. The Corinthian columns on the top floor were sourced from Nicaea (now Iznik). Constantinople was briefly occupied by the crusaders during the Fourth Crusade and Hagia Sophia got rechristened as a Catholic cathedral between 1204-1261. Till the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia served as the centre of Eastern Orthodox Church. Two Viking soldiers even etched some runic inscriptions on the parapet and niche of the top floor of the southern gallery in the 9th century, they were discovered in the 1960s. After the fall of Constantinople, the centre of the Orthodox Church gradually shifted towards Russia. As the 15th century Elder (wise person in Orthodox Christianity) of the Pskov Monastery in Russia, Philotheus of Pskov remarked, “ Two Romes (Rome and Constantinople) fell, the third (Moscow) stands. And the fourth will not happen!”

The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque. The cross on top was replaced with a crescent, The beautiful mosaics of Virgin Mary with infant Jesus, Jesus along with Byzantine monarchs and Saints, Angels like Gabriel were plastered off. All Christian symbols like Alter, cross, bells, baptistry, were destroyed or put into the storage room at the back. The stained-glass windows with images from the bible were replaced with newer ones with Islamic calligraphy. The marble floor was covered with carpets hiding the beautiful geometric patterns. Four minarets were added at four corners of the building. Golden chandeliers and round discs (containing the names of Prophets inlaid in gold) were hung from the roof. Later a special area (Sultan’s Lodge) was made for the Ottoman Sultan’s family to offer their prayers in privacy, away from the crowd. It was the main mosque of Istanbul till the construction of Sultan Ahmet (Blue) mosque in 1616. The Hagia Sophia served as the inspiration for many Ottoman mosques like the Suleymaniye mosque, Sultan Ahmet mosque, etc.

In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk converted the mosque into a museum. It was to serve as a symbol of the cultural interaction between the West and the East, Catholics and Orthodox, Christians and Muslims, Greeks and Turks. The plasters were removed revealing mosaics hidden for over 500 years. The carpets were removed from the floors, All the Christian symbols were brought out from the storeroom and put out for display within and outside the main hall. The loudspeakers on the minarets fell silent. However, after the recent decision, all Christian symbols were again relocated to a new museum in nearby Sultan Ahmet area of Istanbul, the mosaics concealed with curtains, and the floor covered with turquoise carpets.



The Hagia Sophia became a symbol of Byzantine architecture for the years to come. The building is made of masonry construction. The mortar joints (made of sand and minute ceramic particles) are 1.5 times the width of the  bricks. It was one of the first buildings to employ a fully pendentive central dome covering the nave. The dome reaches a height of 182 feet 5 inches at its highest, and rests on an arcade of 40 arched windows. The light from the windows reflect across the golden colour of the dome illuminating the church. The dome originally circular, has turned elliptical due to later repairs. The central dome is surrounded by a complex of dome-headed elements. At the western and eastern entrances there are extended by half domes identical to the central dome.

The imperial gate was the main entrance of the church, exclusively reserved for use by the royal family. The Byzantine mosaic atop the entrance depicts Jesus with an unknown Emperor. A long ramp from the northern part leads to the upper gallery. The upper gallery is laid out is a horse-shoe pattern that encloses the nave on three sides and is interrupted only by the apse. Several mosaics have been preserved in the upper gallery as it was generally reserved for the royal family, nobles, and the elites. A tradition that initially continued later under Ottomans. Numerous buttresses have been added to the exterior throughout the centuries including the flying buttresses on the western wall. The wooden minarets added by Sultan Mehmet perished and were replaced. The south-eastern red brick one was erected during Sultan Bayezid II and the remaining three made of lime stone were completed during the reign of Selim II.

There are many decorative elements and ornate structures within the building like the Loggia of the Empress, Lustration Urns, Marble Door, Nice Door, Imperial Door, and the Wishing Column.

The monument truly depicts a confluence of eastern and western cultures and was perfect as a museum. The recent controversial decision, although welcomed in the Islamic sphere, has received wide criticism from across the world including UN. Although Christian symbols would be removed; the cats of Hagia Sophia like Gli a But still the Hagia Sophia will remain open for the public (except during prayer times) to explore, and its walls will continue to tell tales from a bygone era.


Note to Visitors:

Hagia Sophia is open to public throughout the day, although the interiors are not accessible to non-Muslims during prayer times. Visitors must follow a strict dress code akin to the other mosques in Turkey. There is no entry fee. Photography allowed.



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Sayan Lodh

By Blogger

I am student of History at Presidency University, Kolkata. Besides history I'm also interested in archaeology, architectural history, heritage (tangible, natural and intangible) and heritage conservation.