Hagia Sofia – where faiths meet

There was news this week that the Hagia Sofia, the jewel of Byzantine architecture in Istanbul, is to be turned back into a mosque after 85 years as a carefully non-religious museum. Of course the Hagia Sofia, originally the great cathedral of Eastern Christianity, has been a mosque before. The building’s history mirrors the eclectic past of the city of Istanbul itself – an ancient city where east meets west across the Bosphorus, occupied successively by Greeks and Romans, known as Byzantium, renamed Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine in 330, fallen to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, declining in importance over the centuries, so that in 1923 when the modern state of Turkey was formed, it lost its status as a capital city to Ankara. Since 1930 the city has been known by the Turkish name of Istanbul.

The Hagia Sofia, meaning “church of the Holy Wisdom”, is an architectural marvel built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century on the foundations of two earlier churches. The vast interior space was designed to portray “an unearthly mirror of the heavens” (Eyewitness Travel Guide to Turkey) and is truly awe inspiring. The upper walls were once covered entirely in gold Byzantine mosaics and intriguing remnants of these remain, depicting Christ, saints, Mary the mother of Jesus, atchangels, emperors and six-winged seraphim. But the great dome itself is decorated with Koranic verses and 8 massive round wooden plaques in the nave show calligraphic inscriptions of the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, the first four Muslim Caliphs and two of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandsons.

This magnificent church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed in 1453 and the golden mosaics of Justinian and his Empress Theodora, the Virgin Mary and the painted seraphim were covered up for centuries. When Kemal Mustafa Ataturk founded modern Turkey he wanted to turn the nation towards the West and away from strict Islamic rules. So he imposed secularism on the state and Hagia Sofia became a museum. The Christian decor was uncovered and for 85 years visitors to this imposing building have been able to view Islamic and Christian art side by side in this wonderful setting.

Now once again Turkey is seeing change, in a determined swing back towards a stricter Islamic culture, and the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has decreed that the Hagia Sofia become a mosque once again. The Christian images will be covered up during prayer times. Women will be expected to wear headscarves.

On Friday July 24th the newly designated msoque was closed to visitors. Soon Islamic prayer will be heard under the soaring arches of the nave. Some Turkish people deplore the abandonment of the former secular status of this iconic building. Supporters of the President and Turkish Muslims are pleased that the Hagia Sofia will be a thriving centre of Islamic worship once again. Some Turkish Christians see this as an attack on their faith.

Visual symbols of the Islamic and Christian faiths and wonderful Islamic and Christian art have been present together in the Hagia Sofia for almost 600 years. Like the city itself, the great cathedral and its four added minarets stand as a monument to the ever changing world in which we live, a world where faiths and people of different faiths should be able to co exist in respectful peace. I hope Christians and every person of faith or no faith will still be able to visit the Hagia Sofia. Not just to be impressed by its matchless architectural beauty but to pause and recognise and to drink in the atmosphere of mystic divinity and religious harmony. The presence of both God and Allah is embedded in its foundations through centuries of prayer and worship and floats unseen but undeniable from its walls, for Hagia Sofia was dedicated in honour of the “holy wisdom” whose divine power and might transcends any human action and will forever outlast human history.

Photo Mark Hargreaves Original text Claire Hargreaves July 2020

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