In February this year, I went twice to Istanbul and visited the Hagia Sophia on each occasion (and last year!). This incredible structure was built as a Christian basilica by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. Then after a thousand years, it became a mosque for five hundred years when the Ottomans invaded. Since the 1930s it has been a museum – but the Turkish government now wants to convert it back into a mosque.
Watch my iPhone video tour above – which I now wish I’d filmed on a proper TV camera.
The Hagia Sophia is set to be converted back into a mosque after a court ruled this week that the 1934 decision to turn it into a museum was illegal. President Tayyip Erdogan, who has been agitating for this move, has now signed a decree to end its museum status. The Hagia Sophia’s social media sites have already been removed. And a mosque service has been broadcast from inside the Hagia Sophia.
This has sparked outrage around the world. Secularists wanted the basilica to remain as a museum – complying with the wishes of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The Christian orthodox church is appalled as the Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian place of worship by the eastern Christian Byzantines – and not as a mosque. And many Muslims will also be wondering why such an antagonistic move has to be made when Istanbul is not short of mosques.
History of the Hagia Sophia
The first Roman emperor who identified himself as a Christian was Constantine. He founded the city of Constantinople as the new capital of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. The reason for moving the capital from Rome eastwards was that Constantinople was better positioned at the crossroads between Europe and Asia. This was a time when the main threat to the Romans came from Sassanid ruled Persia. His son, who ruled as Constantius II (317-361AD), built the first basilica.
That was destroyed during riots in the year 404. Another basilica was built by the emperor Theodosius II and inaugurated in 415. You can still see some remains of that building scattered around the current Hagia Sophia. The Theodosius version burnt down in the violent Nika riots of 532 under the emperor Justinian. He then set about building a vast edifice that could not tumble. What you see today is his achievement. A vast dome and the walls covered in incomparable gold mosaics.
The Roman empire split with the west falling to the “barbarians” in the fifth century AD while the east continued and we call it the Byzantine empire – though nobody did at the time. They thought they were the Romans and nothing else. And the Hagia Sophia was THEIR Christian glory. It was rocked by earthquakes and repaired. In the eighth century it lost many of its ornate mosaics when some Christians, including the emperor, decided that human imagery was sinful – what was called iconoclasm.
During the Fourth Crusade in 1204 – Constantinople was sacked by crusaders funded by the Republic of Venice. This was a disgraceful act where soldiers claiming to represent Christ attacked other Christians and burnt their city. To add insult to a huge injury, a prostitute was crowned as patriarch on the throne in the Hagia Sophia. It then became a Catholic cathedral for a while. Then the Byzantines kicked the crusaders out and it went back to being an orthodox Christian place of worship.
FIND OUT MORE: The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople
The Ottoman invasion and Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque
Then in 1453, the Ottoman Turks invaded and Constantinople had new Muslim rulers. The Byzantine empire was over. The last emperor disappeared in battle and his body was never found. The Hagia Sophia became a mosque. And you can see in my film above how the Christian basilica was changed to adapt to the new religion.
FIND OUT MORE: Constantinople – glorious Byzantine capital
After the First World War (1914-1918), the Ottoman Empire, which had sided with Germany, collapsed. Turkey became a republic occupying a much smaller territory than before. Its new ruler, Ataturk, wanted the country to modernise and adopt a more nationalist and secular frame of mind. As part of that move, he declared that the Hagia Sophia would no longer be a mosque but a museum.
And so it has remained until this week. How do I feel about this? Depressed. This is a purely symbolic gesture and a measure that could harm the tourist economy of Istanbul at a time when it needs to be attracting more visitors. I do hope that good sense prevails. And I groan at the thought of any damage that could be done to the fabric of the building.
We do live in very strange times. Below some photos from my visit in February this year.