Hagia Sophia and Its Multiple Lives

In July 2020, Turkish President Erdogan surprised nearly everyone with his decision to annul a 1934 bill converting the Hagia Sophia into a museum and instead reinstated the space as a functioning mosque. The transition was quick: the announcement to do so was done on July 10, and within two weeks, the building reopened its doors to host Friday prayers attended by Erdogan, top government officials, and around 350,000 congregants. The decision was greeted with split responses from the international community. Many expressed their disappointment and concerns over what such a move could potentially signify, while others hailed it as a victory of sorts for the Muslim community.

One of the bases presented for overturning the 1934 bill was the claim that upon Sultan Mehmed II’s conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Sultan had bought over the building – until then a functioning Eastern Orthodox church – with his personal funds and designated it as a mosque waqf[1]. The 1934 bill is thus considered as invalidating this precedence, and the decision to annul the bill is meant to restore the building to what it was originally designated for.

But here is where the tricky part comes in: is it possible to truly pinpoint the building’s ‘original’ function, when as a site of worship it has hosted and accommodated multiple beliefs throughout its existence?

The history of Hagia Sophia cannot be separated from the history of religion in Constantinople or Istanbul; in fact, these histories are embedded within the structures of the Hagia Sophia itself as its architecture morphed over the centuries each time the site was re-sacralised by different faiths. To reclaim the Hagia Sophia principally as a place of worship for a singular faith runs the risk of erasing such richness and obscures the multiple sacralities it has been long associated with.

The beginnings of the Hagia Sophia can be traced to 537 AD, when Emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire ordered it rebuilt to replace an older church destroyed a few years earlier during a citizen revolt that had resulted in the torching of large parts of the city. For the next six centuries, the Hagia Sophia would serve as the principal and largest church for the Eastern Orthodox denomination, primarily located within the Byzantine Empire.

Between 1204 and 1261, the Hagia Sophia had a brief interregnum as a Roman Catholic cathedral when Constantinople was overrun by crusaders from the Latin West, but thereafter returned to being an Eastern Orthodox church until the conquest by Mehmet II. The Ottoman Empire would in turn repurpose the church as a mosque from 1453 until its conversion to a museum by the Turkish Republic in 1935.

At each point of its resacralisation, it would appear that Hagia Sophia underwent architectural changes. At its inception, the Hagia Sophia might have been desired by Justinian to be the model for future Byzantine architectural sensibilities, as part of his agenda of renovatio imperii or restoration of the empire, in the face of the collapse of the Western half of the Roman Empire. The Byzantine half of the Roman Empire needed to present itself as able to reunite not just the empire, but the clerical schism that had started to manifest within Christianity. Hence in terms of architectural language, the Hagia Sophia drew upon classical Roman architecture as its basis, but surpassed it by adopting more naturalistic lines with modified vaulting that allowed for higher ceilings with round arches and multiple cupola domes, allowing for more light to enter the central spaces. In terms of interior, decorative illumination was key: marble and gold mosaic added to the lightness of the space, and glittering stones were often used in the Christian mosaic art around the church.

The Latin interregnum saw the Hagia Sophia converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral as the Byzantine ruler fled the city when it began to be overrun by Frankish crusaders from the Latin West, causing the city to be briefly under the control of the Catholic Church. The conversion was preceded by looting of treasures contained within the Hagia Sophia, but the building itself more or less remained intact. Modifications only began to be introduced following the Ottoman conquest and conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, mainly the introduction of minarets for the call to prayers and other notifications to be announced. However, these minarets were simply that: additions. They did not fundamentally alter the building.

Despite the looting, the heart of Hagia Sophia including the Christian mosaic art depicting Mary and the infant Jesus (a Christian iconography known as the Theotokos) were left untouched throughout until the tail end of the Ottoman reign. In Ottoman historical chronicles, it is said that Sultan Mehmet I himself was in awe of the mosaics upon seeing them; he issued no order to remove or deface them even though these mosaics would be within the vicinity of the main prayer hall. It would only be in the 1800s onwards following repairs to the building’s structure that the mosaics were plastered over, partly in response to greater discomfort amongst the religious elites towards figurative representation of the prophets, especially in the mosque.

The fact that the Christian mosaic art in the Hagia Sophia was left uncovered for vast parts of history when the site functioned as a mosque is something worth reflecting. One way of reading this is that the Ottoman sultans were following the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) footsteps who had preserved a Theotokos icon when he destroyed pagan statues around the Kaabah in Mecca. It was a mark of respect to Mary and Jesus, both of whom are also revered in the Islamic faith.

Another way of interpreting this is that the Ottomans did not consider these imagery akin to idolatry. At best, they were used for devotional purposes. At its most ambivalent, these imagery were works of spiritual art. In fact, the appeal of such Theotokos imagery would continue well into the 17th century, as Ottoman elites regularly collected European prints and artworks depicting the pair. Not unfrequently, the mother-son pair were also weaved in as motifs in Ottoman metalware and glassware. The ambivalence towards figurative depiction of prophets and their families would also continue in Ottoman miniature drawings such as the 17th century Siyer-i Nebi or ‘Biography of the Prophet’.

In some sense, the desacralisation of the Hagia Sophia by converting it into a museum allowed for the complex and nuanced relationship that the Ottoman rulers had towards the building’s Byzantine-Christian past to be at the forefront. It also bears remembrance that subsequent Ottoman mosques borrowed heavily the form and architecture of the Hagia Sophia; it is no coincidence that the Blue Mosque, located a stone’s throw away from the Hagia Sophia, resembled the latter greatly. Perhaps this is the greatest strength in retaining the Hagia Sophia as a museum: within itself, it tells the story of Constantinople’s diverse past. One needed to only step into the Hagia Sophia to be able to access it at one sweeping glance.

At this point I would like to once again dip into history and point out something else related to the building of the Hagia Sophia under Justinian I: his motives for doing so. The grandiose and opulence of the church were intentional. Firstly, Justinian was seeking to restore his popularity with his citizens, which had worsened after the Niko revolt of 532, which included an attempt by his senators to depose him. Justinian survived the incident, but 30,000 of the rioters did not. The building of the Hagia Sophia was part of his efforts to rebuild the city, and having an architectural marvel as the foremost Eastern Orthodox church would have been a good way to elevate his image in the eyes of his citizens.

Secondly, Justinian’s renovatio imperii agenda came along with it another ambition, which was to project himself as the only one capable of restoring peace to the Roman Empire, including mitigating the clerical (and eventually political) schism between the Catholics in the Latin West and the Eastern Orthodox in Byzantium. An extravagant church after all could only be erected by the leader of a thriving and safe empire, not by those who had to fend off tribal invasions on the regular. The seat of the church then accordingly was better suited to be within such secure and prosperous spaces.

Perhaps there is merit in looking at the new fate of the Hagia Sophia away from the lens of faiths laying exclusive claim to the space, and through something much more profane: a political move meant to enhance a politician’s popularity. Over the past years, Erdogan had consistently been painting himself as a leader seeking to restore Islam’s public presence in Turkey, and pushing back against Turkey’s secularised identity, in place since Turkey was constituted as a republic under Kemal Ataturk in the 1930s. We might also recall that this turn towards a more Islam-centric agenda under Erdogan emerged following Turkey’s failed attempt to be recognised as a member of the European Union, and Erdogan has since instead opted to present himself as a potential leader of the global Muslim community. The re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque might just be indicative of this. ⬛

1 A waqf is an Islamic endowment of property to be used for a charitable or religious purpose.


Syafiqah Jaaffar is an Assistant Curator with the National Museum of Singapore. She previously graduated from the National University of Singapore, with a major in history.

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