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Hagia Sophia: The museum of conflicts

Once an emblem of Christian-Muslim co-existence, Hagia Sophia has now become the symbol of Turkey’s Islamist politics.

An Eastern Orthodox patriarchal cathedral for about 900 years, an imperial mosque for 482 years and then a museum and a famed tourist spot starting 1935. This is the short history of Hagia Sophia, the sixth century Byzantine structure that has survived natural calamities, imperial invasions, crusades and a World War. The architectural marvel in Istanbul, which is revered by both eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims, is now being turned into a mosque by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Hagia Sophia (literally ‘Holy Wisdom’) was built by the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I, in the first half of the sixth century. This was the third cathedral being built at the site. The first one, with a wooden roof, is believed to have been commissioned by Emperor Constantine I in AD 325 on the remains of a pagan temple. This was burned down by rioters in AD 404.

The second church, ordered by Constans I, was also destroyed in a fire during the Nika riots of AD 532 that saw widespread fire and destruction in Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). After establishing order in the city, Justinian found the fire an opportunity to rebuild the cathedral with his stamp on it. The imperial Byzantine power was at its pinnacle under Justinian. The Empire had conquered much of the historically Roman Mediterranean coast, including Italy, Rome and North Africa (The Byzantine influence would start shrinking after the outbreak of the Justinian Plague, one of the deadliest pandemics in recorded history).

The basilica, designed by mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and physicist Isidore of Miletu, was completed in five years by more than 10,000 labourers. The Emperor reopened it in AD 537. While entering the church, he is reported to have said, “Solomon, I have surpassed you!”, in a reference to King Solomon’s Great Temple in ancient Jerusalem. Justinian wanted the cathedral to symbolise the magnificence of eastern Christianity. The first religious service in the rebuilt Hagia Sophia was held on December 27, 537 in the presence of the Emperor. “My Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to create such a worshipping place,” Justinian said at the service.

The Ottoman era

Barring a few years after the Fourth Crusade, Hagia Sophia had been the cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople until the fall of the city in the 15th century. Several earthquakes damaged it partially, leading to restorations. In the early 13th century, crusaders looted the building and turned it into a Roman Catholic cathedral. But after the Byzantines recaptured the city from the Venetian crusaders, they restored the cathedral and it continued to remain the seat of the Patriarch until the Ottomans came.

On May 28, 1453, when Constantinople was under siege and the Ottomans were making steady advances into the Byzantine defence lines, Emperor Constantine XI entered the basilica to pray. After prayers he returned to the city walls to coordinate the war efforts. But the Byzantine defence lasted only one day. The next day, the Ottomans, under the command of Mehmed II the Conqueror, entered the city. Mehmed is believed to have been mesmerised by the architectural beauty of the basilica. He “dismounted at the door of the church and bent down to take a handful of earth, which he then sprinkled over his turban as an act of humility before God,” according to an account of the Sultan’s entry into Hagia Sophia by John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd in their book, Strolling Through Istanbul.

The Sultan decided to turn the basilica into a mosque. The Ottomans later commissioned the renowned medieval architect Sinan to renovate the structure. They built massive buttresses to support the walls. A mihrab (a semi-circular niche on the wall that indicates the qibla, the direction of Mecca) and a minbar (pulpit) were installed. New minarets came up. The Ottomans covered many of the Byzantine mosaics with Islamic calligraphy. The images of Jesus, Mother Mary, saints and angels were either destroyed or plastered over (Some mosaics were restored when the mosque was converted into a museum). The mosque, called Ayasofya in Turkish, remained the centre of power throughout the Ottoman rule. The Byzantine architecture had also deeply influenced Ottoman constriction projects. It’s visible on the most major mosques the Ottomans built such as the Blue Mosque, the Sehzade Mosque, the Suleymaniye Mosque, the Rustem Pasha Mosque and the Kilic Ali Pasha Complex.

A secular museum

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, secularists, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (who was later called Ataturk, the father of Turks), came to power.

Ataturk, who abolished the Caliphate and launched a strong secularisation drive in the country, closed down Hagia Sophia in 1930, seven years after the foundation of the Turkish republic. Five years later, the building was reopened as a museum. Since then, Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has been one of the most visited monuments in Turkey, and more importantly, an emblem of Christian-Muslim co-existence. Last year alone, 3.7 million people visited Hagia Sophia.

Turning the monument back into a mosque has been a growing demand from the Islamist sections of Turkish society. Mr. Erdogan, whose Justice and Development Party has been in power for 18 years, has supported the demand. On Friday, a Turkish administrative court cancelled the museum status of the monument. Mr. Erdogan moved fast, issuing a decree, transferring the management of Hagia Sophia from the Ministry of Culture to the Directorate of Religious Affairs. With this, Turkey’s Islamist politics has taken a new turn.

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