In the heart of the old city of Istanbul is a genuine manifestation of the spirit of the wonderful place that has long served as a bridge between Europe and Asia, East and West. Hagia Sophia is an amazing testimony to the great stories of Islam and Orthodox Christianity.
The majestic church-turned-mosque-turned-museum-turned-mosque has stood the test of time and war for nearly 1,500 years. It has survived centuries of conquest and has served as the main religious edifice of two of the greatest empires in history: the Byzantines and the Ottomans.
Built as the patriarchal cathedral of the imperial capital of Constantinople in 537, Hagia Sophia – “Holy Wisdom” in Latin – was hailed as the epitome of Byzantine architecture and remained the largest church in all of Christendom for nearly 1,000 years.
With the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror proclaimed Hagia Sophia as the new imperial mosque of the city, which he renamed “Istanbul”. He established a charitable donation to restore and preserve it, with a significant fund of 14,000 gold pieces a year.
In stark contrast to the looting, desecration and damage that the building had suffered at the hands of Western Christian Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade of 1204, the Sultan ordered that the Christian interior of Hagia Sophia be preserved and that new decorations be added for reflect your new Islamic identity. A wooden minaret, a tower used for the call to prayer, was added to the exterior of the building, as well as a pulpit and a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca. The original wooden minaret did not survive and a new red brick minaret was erected in its place in the southeast corner. The brick minaret can be seen today along with three others that were added in the following centuries.
Upon entering, you are immediately struck by the large suspended dome of Hagia Sophia, over fifty meters high and over thirty meters in diameter, with light reflecting through the windows around its base. Below they face eight Corinthian reinforcing columns brought from Baalbek in Lebanon after the original dome collapsed during an earthquake.
The interior is also laden with large columns taken from the Temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the Hunt and the Moon. A unique column, nicknamed the “column of weeping” or the “column of wishes”, stands to the northwest of the building with a hole in the middle covered by bronze plaques. The spine is said to have supernatural healing powers. According to legend, it gets wet when touched, and humidity cures many diseases.
The walls of Hagia Sophia are covered in luxurious Christian mosaics, Islamic calligraphy, and even runic inscriptions that are supposed to have been left by Viking members of the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the Byzantine army. Every wall, inscription and tile of Hagia Sophia tells a fascinating story of the civilizations it has witnessed and all that it has endured.
Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for nearly 500 years, until the Republic of Turkey was declared in 1923 following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the abolition of the Caliphate. The first president of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, turned the Great Mosque of Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935 as a symbol of “secularism”. In 1985 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and remains one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, attracting millions of visitors each year.
On July 10, 2020, a Turkish court revoked the 1934 order that turned the monument into a museum, finding the decree “illegal” and restoring its mosque status. New rugs were unfolded as it was opened to Muslim worship. It still remains open to tourists and the public of all religions and none.
What was once a jewel of the Byzantine Empire and revered as a symbol of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople is now an icon of Turkish heritage and culture.