Once a byzantine church, then an Ottoman mosque and now one of the world’s most popular museums, the Hagia Sophia is definitely one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world. While I’m not usually big on museums, this ancestor of all domed churches, seemed to draw my attention from Day One. We would step out every morning and start the day sitting on the benches between the 2 majestic structures, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. As the call to prayer echoed in the entire neighborhood, I would stare in awe at the magnificent creation. Its grandiose dome is unmissable and still dominates the skyline of Istanbul.
One afternoon, as we got back to our apartment in Sultanhamet, my sister and I got to our customary ‘reading out of curiosity’ of everything we had come across through the morning. This led us to the Hagia Sophia and then there was just no looking back. We decided to be our own guides for the visit to the museum the following day. All other plans were cancelled and the evening was dedicated to Turkish coffee (which, by this point, we had both taken to) and lessons in history.
Built first in the 4th century by Constantine, the church was burnt down a couple of times in riots. It was brought down again by natural disasters in the following years. Steps were then taken to better secure the dome. For nearly a millenium, the Hagia Sophia was the seat of the orthodox patriarch of Constantinople. In 1204, crusaders attacked and plundered the cathedral. A Latin Bishop replaced the Patriarch. Hagia Sophia remained a functioning church until May 29, 1453. Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror, then triumphed over the city of Constantinople. Christianity gave way to Islam as it was converted into his imperial mosque.
Hagia Sopia served as the principal mosque of Istanbul for over 500 years. Over this time, it became a model for many other Ottoman mosques. The addition of a mihrab (a niche in the wall of a mosque, at the point nearest to Mecca, towards which the congregation faces to pray), a minbar (a short flight of steps used as a platform by a preacher in a mosque) and a wooden minaret made a mosque out of the church. The faces on the Christian mosaics were covered in plaster due to the Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery. Eight huge round discs with Arabic calligraphy were conspicuously placed on the columns that supported the dome. Various other additions and extensive restorations were conducted by successive sultans over the centuries.
In 1934, the mosque was secularized and converted into the Aya Sofia Museum. The prayer rugs were removed, revealing the marble beneath but the mosaics remained largely plastered over. Some of the calligraphic panels were removed and moved to other mosques. The 8 roundels, though, were left and can still be seen today.
My sister and I couldn’t wait to see everything we had just read about. All those little details. And it all came to life the following day, as we made our way into the museum. We saw the ruins of the original cathedral dedicated to the wisdom of God even before we entered the main cathedral. We spent over 4 hours inside the museum. There was so much to see. The walls, the floors, the doors, the dome, the Byzantine mosaics, the arab calligraphy were all telling us stories. And we, were deeply engaged, in this unique conversation.
The Hagia Sophia evokes different sentiments for different people. Thousands pray for this Istanbul landmark to become a mosque again. Many on the other hand feel that a faith and some of its significant symbols have been obliterated. Campaigns to restore it as a Christian Church have been undertaken. Well, church, mosque, museum or battleground, to me, the Hagia Sofia is one of the most impressive buildings that I have ever witnessed. It embodies the history of a city, a people and a culture. A place where you can see both Islamic and Christian symbols sit side by side. And to me this is representative of Istanbul in a way – a melting pot of cultures, the nexus between Asia and Europe, the only city that straddles two continents. This architectural wonder, just like the city it stands in, offers a rich historical and multi-cultural experience like no other.