This building - also known as the Hagia Sofia - was in the news in July 2020, after the Turkish courts annulled its museum status, allowing President Erdogan to reclaim it as a mosque, and open it for Islamic prayer services on July 24.
Before it was a museum, it was a mosque. But before that, it was a church.
The Ayasofya is among the oldest religious sites in the world, dating to 537 AD, and is among the most important examples of Byzantine architecture still standing. It is the third church built on this site, after the first two were destroyed by fire during riots in the 5th and 6th centuries.
Emperor Justinian I assigned two Anatolian architects,Söke/Balat and Aydin, to build a basilica that surpassed Solomon’s Temple. Materials were recycled from various buildings in Anatolia, including the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus and a pagan temple in Tarsus. Restoration work started almost immediately after the domes suffered damage from earthquakes in 553 and 557.
There are runes carved into one of the marble railings from the Viking raids of the 9th-10th centuries. The church was looted during the Fourth Crusade. During the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, many pieces from the Ayasofya were redistributed to churches in Europe. (I saw some of these pieces in the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica in Venice during my trip there in 2009.) Historians of the time recorded that “compared to the Crusaders, Arabians are more compassionate…”
When Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Ayasofya was converted to a mosque. Four minarets were added between the 15th-16th centuries, two of them built by Mimar Sinan who served as chief architect under Suleyman the Great. The Sultan Mahmud I Library was added in 1739.
The most famous restoration occurred in 1847-49, when the 8th century mosaics were uncovered and documented. They were plastered over again as Islamic law bans images, but were restored in 1932 when the Ayasofya was converted to a museum by degree of President and founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. There is some concern that plastering will be repeated, now that President Erdogan has reverted the Ayasofya back to a mosque.
The fretworked minbar (the imam’s pulpit) dates to the late 16th century and is one of the most beautiful I saw in any mosque in Turkey.
The light fixture (at right) holds the original oil lamps, now electrified. I looked everywhere in Istanbul to find a replica oil lamp to bring home, but to no avail.
The stained glass (at left, recycled according to my hotel concierge) frames a Christian altar - another feature of this building that may now be imperiled.
I hope that a sense of global heritage and its UNESCO protections will prevail, and prevent this building from being altered from its present historical state, and that both Islamic and Christian artifacts remain side by side, as they have for centuries.
For further reading:
Muze Istanbul: Hagia Sophia Mosque
The Istanbul Insider: Church Turned Mosque Turned Museum
Franciscan Media: Hagia Sophia– A Rich and Holy History
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Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.