Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia: Museum or Mosque?

I once spent eight days in Istanbul, an incredibly fascinating city! One of the things I liked to do while I was there was stroll from my hotel over to nearby Sultanahmet Park in the early evening, sit down on a park bench facing Istanbul’s renowned Hagia Sofia, and as daylight faded, reflect–on the beauty of the ancient basilica, on the many changes that have occurred in the region since Turkey was known as ‘Asia Minor’ and Istanbul was called ‘Constantinople’, on life in general. (Some people don’t find the rusty-pink exterior of the Hagia Sophia beautiful, but I do.)  Like millions of other visitors to the city, I had made a trip to Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, now the Ayasofya museum, a top priority and had explored its awesome interior shortly after arriving. Christendom’s most glorious church for over one thousand years didn’t disappoint. Its builder, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, had wanted to erect a church that would surpass Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  I think he must have come close.

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Although my trip to Istanbul took place a mere seven and a half years ago, the Turkey I visited is not the Turkey that exists today. Whether future tourists will experience the same Hagia Sophia  I and millions of others have in the past is now uncertain.  A commission of the Turkish Parliament recently accepted a citizen’s petition from one Talib Bozkurt to have the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya Museum, reopened as a mosque.  The petition is currently under consideration.

One tends to forget that Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) was a Christian city for 1123 years. The building known as the Hagia Sophia (in Greek), Sancta Sophia (in Latin), and Holy Wisdom (in English) was constructed as a place of Christian worship. The edifice we see today is actually the third basilica built at this location.  The first basilica burned down in 360 and the second was destroyed in the riots of 532.  When the third basilica, Justinian’s basilica, was completed in 537, it was acknowledged as the most impressive structure in the world. In 1453, in what must have been a “9.11” event for fifteenth-century Christians, Mehmet II and his Muslim forces captured Constantinople and turned Christendom’s most glorious church into a mosque.

And thus it remained for 481 years. But things changed with the arrival on the scene of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Father of the Turks,” creator of modern Turkey.  In 1922, the Ottoman Sultanate was abolished and a year later Turkey became a secular republic with Atatürk as its first president.  Atatürk set about modernizing and secularizing Turkey through a program of revolutionary social and political reforms.  The emancipation of women, the closing of Islamic courts and replacement of shariah with secular civil codes, the closing of the madrassas, the introduction of Western dress, the replacement of Arabic script with the Latin alphabet:  these were some of the Westernizing transformations wrought by Atatürk. Turkey’s reformer also encouraged the visual arts, banned, limited, or suppressed under his Islamic predecessors.  In 1849, the Sultan Abdülmecid, for example, had ordered the splendid mosaics in the Hagia Sophia’s interior to be covered over with white plaster. Atatürk, in contrast, believed that the mosaics should be revealed and ordered their restoration, a long, arduous, and costly enterprise.  Atatürk regarded the Hagia Sophia as a monument to all civilizations and therefore meant to be accessible to all and sundry, not just to Muslims. To this end, he signed an order in 1934 making the Hagia Sophia a museum, the Ayasofya Museum.

Unfortunately, the days of the Hagia Sophia as a museum may be numbered. Since Bozkurt’s citizen petition, fifteen other petitions have been submitted. It’s hard not to believe that the current Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan himself supports such a move, having stated back in the 1990s that “Ayasofya should be opened to Muslim prayers.”  Atatürk had prohibited public prayer in the Ayasofya in 1934.

Seeing Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia reconsecrated as a mosque is not unthinkable.  The fate of the historic Hagia Sofia in Nicea (now Iznik, Turkey)–a scaled-down version of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul–is instructive.  The Hagia Sophia in Iznik also holds great significance for Christians.  It was in this location that the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, was held in 325.  And it was in this very basilica that the bishops of the Eastern Roman Empire gathered to decide the Iconoclast controversy in 787. Despite its historical significance for Christians, in November 2011 the ancient basilica was declared a mosque.  And just last year, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc proposed reconsecrating as a mosque the Hagia Sofia church in the city of Trabzon on the Black Sea–like the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul,  currently a museum.  Interestingly enough, not even the Muslim leaders of Trabzon are in favour of Arinc’s proposed change.

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Mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator Flanked by the Empress Zoë and Constantine IX Monomachus

Turkey is currently undergoing re-Islamization. With the Muslim prohibition against depiction of the human body, the ancient mosaics of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia like the one above would again be in jeopardy, were the museum to become a mosque once more.  The spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has spoken out against the proposed return of the Hagia Sophia to mosque status. He wants the Ayasofya to remain a museum.  Not just Eastern Orthodox Christians but Christians everywhere should lend the Patriarch their support.  I would like to think that this article is part of that support.

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