As the old song says, Istanbul was Constantinople. (It was also Byzantium, but our story begins a couple centuries after this first – and less famous – name change.) Few remnants remain in Turkey’s largest city from this earlier period. There are ancient cisterns that helped sustain the city through numerous sieges, and some wall fragments. There is also a huge structure, Turkey’s most visited icon (at least until recently), called the Hagia Sophia. This article is its story.

The Hagia Sophia as seen from the water. Thank you to my mom for this shot!

Built by the Roman Emperor Justinian I in the year 537, the Hagia Sophia was envisioned as the Capitol of Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire. At the time the largest church in the world (until the Seville Cathedral was constructed in 1520), and the building with the largest interior space in the world, it was also the very first building constructed with a pendentive dome (a circular dome over and square room), something that would become known as the Byzantine style. Sophia in its name refers to the Latin word for wisdom, not to the Saint.

For nearly a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia was the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. And then, in 1453, Constantinople, the last holdout of the Roman Empire, was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed the Conqueror. The new tenants removed the relics from the cathedral, plastered over the building’s mosaics (depictions of people are not allowed under Islam), and converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Four minarets were built, and the altar’s location was moved slightly off-center to face Mecca. After a millennium of being the world’s largest cathedral, the Hagia Sophia became one of the largest mosques, serving as the central mosque for the city until the 1616 completion of the Blue Mosque, just across a central square.

The main facade of the Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque is behind the photographer

The Hagia Sophia served as a working mosque until 1931, when it was closed. It reopened in 1935 as a secular museum, twelve years after the founding of the modern state of Turkey as a secular republic. Its mosaics were uncovered, remarkably well preserved under their plaster and, while Islamic iconography was kept as a reminder of the more recent past, religious functions were no longer held. And so it was until last year.

I visited Istanbul in 2009, my embarkation point for a cruise that took me through much of the Mediterranean to Barcelona. The city enchanted me, an incredible mixture of European and Asian, as befitting the city that sits astride this divide. But perhaps nothing captured my heart more than the Hagia Sophia, the first place I just had to see upon my arrival. The building is massive, shockingly open and airy for its 6th century construction. Walking around both outside and inside gives one a sense of smallness and irrelevance, similar to the feeling one gets staring at the infinite blue of the ocean.

The interior is huge!

Inside, marble dominates much of the construction. Likewise, marble elements are found all around, like the huge ritual urns added to the building under Sultan Murad III. For many, though, the highlights are the mosaics of the upper floor, added between the 10th and 12th centuries. These mosaics had been plastered over when the building was turned into a working mosque, as Islam bans representational imagery (as does Judaism), and were uncovered in the 1930s as the site was concerted into the secular museum I saw in 2009.

One of the uncovered mosaics

It is this secular state of being that is, for me, the true legacy of the Hagia Sophia. In a city that has been Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish – and likewise pagan, Christian, and Muslim – the Hagia Sophia has elements of all of these. Christian mosaic and Muslim geometric designs sit inside a building modeled after a pagan temple. A Byzantine dome tops a room with Hellenistic marble columns, the complex flanked by Ottoman minarets. The Hagia Sophia stands at the intersection of all of these complex legacies, and as such, surpasses them all, a tribute to the vision of Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who dreamt that Turkey would be a secular republic sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.

Christian altar on the left, Muslim on the right

Ataturk’s dream, however, is now in jeopardy. In 2020, Turkey’s Council of State under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the Hagia Sophia to be reclassified as a mosque, and to begin holding prayer services once again. While he maintains that the building will still be open to those of all religious backgrounds, some major questions have arisen. What does this mean for the Christian elements of the building, and specifically the mosaics? Early reports are that the mosaics have been veiled rather than removed or re-plastered over, but it is unclear whether those veils are removed between services, or what the long-term plans are. (If you have been to the Hagia Sophia since this conversion, please report back, as Covid has drastically limited the number of tourists and I have seen no definitive answer.) More importantly, what does the conversion of a secular museum to working mosque mean for the future of a secular Turkey? For seventy years, Turkey stood as an example of a country of mainly Muslims by practice, but with a government that treated all as equal under the law. Turkey prided itself on looking westward, and gazing to the future rather than the past. Is that still to be the case? Only time will tell.

While its future is shrouded in a bit of doubt, there is no question that the Hagia Sophia’s past leaves it as one of the most consequential structures in history, and the crowning gem of one of the most storied cities on the planet. In this single building, two of the world’s great religions collide, as do several empires and some of the most famous figures in Eurasian lore. It will continue to be a wonder, even if it will no longer be the wonder I fell in love with.

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