Hagia Sophia, Turkish Ayasofya, Latin Sancta Sophia, also called Church of the Holy Wisdom a cathedral built at Constantinople in the 6th century CE (532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. By general consensus, it is the most important Byzantine structure and one of the world’s great monuments.
Because of its 1,500-year history, the Hagia Sophia holds immense religious, spiritual and political significance for groups inside and outside Turkey.
It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Hagia Sophia as a museum hosts millions of tourists every year. It was Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction in 2019 with 3.8 million visitors.
Hagia Sophia History
Unable to repair the damage caused by the fire, Justinian ordered the demolition of the Hagia Sophia in 532.
He commissioned renowned architects Isidoros (Milet) and Anthemius (Tralles) to build a new basilica. The third Hagia Sophia was completed in 537, and it remains standing today.
The first religious services in the “new” Hagia Sophia were held on December 27, 537. At the time, Emperor Justinian is reported to have said, “My Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to create such a worshipping place.”
The Hagia Sophia’s design
From its opening, the third and final Hagia Sophia was indeed a remarkable structure. It combined the traditional design elements of an Orthodox basilica with a large, domed roof, and a semi-domed altar with two narthex (or “porches”).
The building measures some 269 feet in length and 240 feet in width and, at its highest point, the domed roof stretches some 180 feet into the air.
Its replacement was designed by Isidore the Younger (the nephew of Isidoros, one of the original architects) with structural ribs and a more pronounced arc, and this version of the structure remains in place today.
Hagia Sophia’s tumultuous history
As Greek Orthodox was the official religion of the Byzantines, the Hagia Sophia was considered the central church of the faith, and it thus became the place where new emperors were crowned.
These ceremonies took place in the nave, where there is an Omphalion (navel of the earth), a large circular marble section of colorful stones in an intertwining circular design, on the floor.
The Hagia Sophia served this pivotal role in Byzantine culture and politics for much of its first 900 years of existence.
However, during the Crusades, the city of Constantinople, and by extension the Hagia Sophia, was under Roman control for a brief period in the 13th century.
The Hagia Sophia was severely damaged during this period but was repaired when the Byzantines once again took control of the surrounding city.
Renovations to the Hagia Sophia
As Islam was the central religion of the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia was renovated into a mosque. As part of the conversion, the Ottomans covered many of the original Orthodox-themed mosaics with Islamic calligraphy designed by Kazasker Mustafa İzzet.
Under the rule of Sultan Abdülmecid, between 1847 and 1849, the Hagia Sophia underwent an extensive renovation led by Swiss architects the Fossati brothers. At this time, the Hünkâr Mahfili (a separate compartment for emperors to use for prayer) was removed and replaced with another near the mihrab.
The strange decision of Mustafa Kamal
Since 1935, nine years after the Republic of Turkey was established by Ataturk, the legendary structure has been operated as a museum by the national government, and it reportedly attracts more than three million visitors annually.
From a museum to a mosque
Since 2005, there have been several attempts to change the building’s status from a museum to a mosque.
However, since 2013, some Islamic religious leaders in the country have sought to have the Hagia Sophia once again opened as a mosque.
The debate isn’t just a religious one: For much of the 21st century, Turkey’s society has witnessed a rise in nationalistic fervor, with a growing recognition of the Ottoman era as being a fundamental part of the country’s history.
In 2018, the Constitutional Court rejected one application. Islamist groups, however, regard the symbolic structure as a legacy of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror and strongly object to its status as a museum.
Large crowds gathered outside Hagia Sophia on the May 31 anniversary of the city’s conquest to pray and demand that it be restored as a place of Muslim worship.
President Tayyip Erdogan declared Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia open to prayer as a mosque on July 10, 2020, after a top court ruled that the building’s conversion to a museum by modern Turkey’s founding statesman was illegal.
Erdogan made his announcement just an hour after the court ruling was revealed, brushing aside international warnings not to change the status of the nearly 1,500-year-old monument that is revered by Christians and Muslims alike.
Criticism from the West and Turkey’s neighbors
The United States and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey. Greece’s culture ministry described the court decision as an “open provocation” to the civilized world.
UNESCO must be notified of any change in the status of Istanbul’s sixth-century Hagia Sophia museum and the changes may have to be reviewed by its World Heritage Committee, the United Nation’s cultural body said.
Neighboring Greece, an overwhelmingly Orthodox country, said Turkey risked opening up a “huge emotional chasm” with Christian countries if it converts a building that was central to the Greek-speaking Byzantine Empire and Orthodox Church.