The Hagia Sophia: Church, Mosque, Museum
“So many people come here and for so many different reasons. Some to rejoice, some to mourn, some to worship, others to sit steeped in thought. Almost everyone who comes to this place must be united by one thing: the staggering awe of one of the most beautiful spaces on earth.”
I wrote this as I sat on a stone step in the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul in Turkey. As I entered this magnificent building I couldn’t help but be struck by its glory. The vaulted and domed ceiling towers high over the viewers head, and the space is suffused with golden light streaming in from the windows, around the domes, and emanating from chandeliers suspended from the ceiling. Gold paint and intricate mosaic tiles glimmer in the radiance. However, despite this magnificence and splendor, the viewer is immediately confronted with a stark juxtaposition of two religions. Islam and Christianity. On the walls massive discs with beautiful, gold, Arabic lettering bear the names of Allah and Mohamed. Many of these discs are hung directly beside a glittering mosaic depicting a scene of Christian iconography. Jesus Christ, Mary the mother of Jesus, a seraphim covered by his six wings.
As a visitor to this museum I felt a sense of unease at seeing a place that was once holy, first to the Christians, then to the Muslims, stripped of its identity like this. Neither Christians nor Muslims can now claim this awesome place as their own space of worship. It is a museum, neutral. Sacredness cross-canceled by competing religions.
Museum to Mosque
Now, as tension continues to rise in the middle east, there is talk of changing this Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque. Two other Hagia Sophias, one in Iznik (once Nicea) and one in Trabzon have recently been converted into mosques. These events point to the possibility of the golden Hagia Sophia of Istanbul being converted as well. In an Article on Al-monitor Amberin Zaman discusses the conversion of the first two buildings and the implications that this may have for the future of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Museum. However, in his conclusion he states that:
Western diplomats warn that the court ruling for the Trabzon Hagia Sophia has set a dangerous precedent. Even so, converting Hagia Sophia in Istanbul seems far-fetched. Restoration work on the famous basilica has continued throughout a decade of AKP rule, and new frescoes have been uncovered. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has himself dismissed speculation about Hagia Sophia’s future. Drawing around 3.3 million visitors in 2012, the museum is in the words of Kalas, the Byzantine historian, “a money-generating machine.” Kalas believes Hagia Sophia will not be converted into a mosque “precisely for this reason, … not because [the government] doesn’t want this to happen,” she concluded.
This sentiment is echoed in an article published in The Economist.
While some spectators offer the Hagia Sophia’s monetary value as a museum as proof that it will not likely be converted, other evidence points in the opposite direction. In the Hurriyet Daily News an article appears indicating that due to the activism of some citizens parliamentary consideration is indeed being given to this proposal.
“Three citizens living in the northwestern province of Kocaeli appealed to the commission with a request to change the status of Hagia Sophia. A survey conducted with 401 people was attached to the application, in which more than 97 percent of interviewees requested the transformation of the ancient building into a mosque and afterwards for it to be reopened for Muslim worship.”
Implications of the Conversion
The conversion of this building has so many implications. As a follower of Christ I see a direct attack on Christendom. While it is true that a relationship with God is not dictated by physical buildings, I can’t help but feel sad that the icons of the Christian church will be covered up once again. The tension that exists there now will give way to a victory for Islam.
This issue is not simply a religious one though. There are many pieces of art in this building created by Christians that are not allowed to be present in a mosque. This means that they will be covered in one way or another and not only will the public not be allowed to view them, but further discovery of such pieces would likely halt. The artistic value of these incredibly detailed mosaics is undeniable. The historical nature of this building and its extant past infuse it with cultural significance. Buildings like this one are important examples of byzantine architecture and art. The conversion of this building will likely cause damage as has been seen in the other two converted churches.
In 2011 Michele Stopera Frehauf wrote an article for Popular Archaeology in which she asserts that:
“Hagia Sophia represents the very essence of the history of Turkey and the continuous transformation it has undergone throughout the ages and even today … As a Museum, this structure must remain a testimony to its past, Pagan, Christian and Muslim alike, standing to tell a story, in its structure and stones.”
This museum is a rich vein of history and its conversion into a mosque would stifle the benefit of being able to explore such a sacred space in an academic or religious way. Is the fate of the Hagia Sophia in Trabzon as depicted in The Economist a window into the future of Istanbul’s building?
“A red carpet now obscures exquisite floor mosaics. Shutters and tents beneath the central dome shield Muslim worshippers from “sinful” paintings of the Holy Trinity. Shiny steel taps with plastic stools for ablutions clutter a once-verdant garden filled with ancient sculptures.”
This Haunting image of a once richly historical place now shrouded in obscurity for the sake of Islam is a grim one. Only the future will show what will become of this sacred space.