On May 29, 1453, after two months of continuous cannon fire, the massive triple walls that had protected Constantinople for nearly a millennium finally crumbled. The victorious Turkish invaders fought their way through the breach, and many rushed down the central avenue to the city’s legendary cathedral, Hagia Sophia. Breaking through the massive, ornate doors, they found hundreds of frightened people inside—the last remnant of a once vast Christian empire. According to legend, as the conquerors were rounding up their captives a lone priest was offering Mass at Hagia Sophia’s high altar. Suddenly, a glowing door appeared in the wall and the priest, still clutching the consecrated Host, walked through it. The opening vanished. It is said that when Hagia Sophia is returned to Christian worship that door will reappear, and the priest will return to finish the Mass.
Based on the events of this past week, there is little chance of luminous doors appearing soon. On July 10, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, president of Turkey, declared Hagia Sophia to be a mosque. It joins more than three thousand other mosques in Istanbul, many of them also former Christian churches. But Hagia Sophia is different, which explains why the world has strongly condemned the decision.
There is just nothing like Hagia Sophia. It has inspired awe since it was completed in 532. Emperor Justinian I, who paid 320,000 pounds of gold for the project, was so astonished when he first entered the great church that he is said to have exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone you!” The central dome, 180 feet high and a little over 100 feet in diameter, was the largest in the world for nearly a thousand years. It was only surpassed by the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in the sixteenth century. Ringed by windows that welcome sunlight into the stone interior, the dome (as the historian Procopius noted) gives the impression that it is suspended from heaven by a golden chain. In size and majesty, Hagia Sophia outstripped every other building, just as Constantinople outshone every other city in the western world. Hagia Sophia became the mother church of eastern Christianity, the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople for nearly a thousand years.
When Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he transformed the cathedral into the sultan’s imperial mosque. All crosses in the temple were broken, and all images either destroyed or plastered over. The altar and other ecclesiastical architecture were removed, prayer carpets were spread across the rich marble floor, and a mihrab (a niche indicating the direction of Mecca) was placed at the site of the old high altar. Mehmed built one minaret outside Hagia Sophia, although later sultans added another three. It would remain the imperial mosque until the end of the sultanate in 1922.
Hagia Sophia’s transformation into a museum in the 1930s was in large part due to an American socialite and fundraiser, Thomas Whittemore. With support from Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss of Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Whittemore obtained permission from the Turkish government to uncover and restore the medieval mosaics of Hagia Sophia. Beautiful depictions of Christ, the Virgin, saints, and emperors arose gloriously from their centuries-old plaster prisons. Armed with cameras and a good head for publicity, Whittemore brought the sublime images of forgotten Constantinople to an astonished world.
President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, took a keen interest in these discoveries. Atatürk was determined to modernize Turkey, bringing it out of its medieval past. That meant, among other things, distancing the new Republic of Turkey from the old Ottoman Empire. He had already moved the capital from imperial Constantinople, and even changed the name of the city to Istanbul. He had also opened Topkapi Palace to tourists. Transforming the sultans’ old mosque into a museum fit perfectly into that program. In 1934 the Turkish Council of Ministers declared Hagia Sophia to be no longer a mosque, but “a unique architectural monument of art.” And so it remained, until last week.
Some have suggested that the decision to make Hagia Sophia a mosque fits with the statue toppling and cancel culture in the U.S. and Europe. But it is really just a political move. As his popularity among moderates and progressives has faltered, President Erdoğan has become increasingly reliant on rural Islamic conservatives to keep him in power. They have always cherished hopes of reverting Hagia Sophia to a mosque, as they believe Atatürk’s reforms betrayed Islam in a bid for Western acceptance. In the most recent elections, Erdoğan lost the majority in Istanbul. So this decision, loved in the countryside but hated by progressives in the big city, both rewards the president’s supporters and punishes his enemies.
There is no place in the world that I love more than Hagia Sophia. But I am still surprised by the attention this decision has received. I suspect that Erdoğan is too. Nevertheless, he has deftly turned the foreign condemnations into an opportunity to wrap himself in Turkish nationalism, insisting that the building belongs to Turks and they can do with it what they wish. On Sunday, Pope Francis remarked, “I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened.” This earned a quick rebuke from a spokesman for Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party), who retorted that the greatest crime against Hagia Sophia had been committed by the “Latin invasion” when the papally-led Crusaders pillaged the church. This is a reference to the Fourth Crusade (1201-1204), which sailed to Constantinople and captured the city. To be fair, Pope Innocent III did not direct the Crusade to Constantinople. Indeed, he explicitly forbade it to go there and excommunicated many of the Crusaders when they disobeyed that command. And, while it is true that the Crusaders pillaged Hagia Sophia in 1204, they also maintained it for the next five decades as a flourishing church. They even repaired the dome when a portion of it collapsed.
It is not yet clear how this change will affect the millions who visit Hagia Sophia each year. Erdoğan’s office has said that none of the Byzantine artwork will be harmed, although it will be hidden during Muslim prayers by curtains or lasers. Like all mosques, there will no longer be an admission charge to visit. But will carpets cover the ancient marble floor? Will access be restricted to specific areas? Will women have to cover their heads and legs as they do at the nearby Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)?
Like all buildings of such age, the history of Hagia Sophia is complicated. For nine centuries it was a church, for nearly five centuries a mosque, and for almost one century a museum. It has been the site of unparalleled beauty and unspeakable horrors. The history of the West is bound up in that remarkable building. It should not be reduced to a pawn in a political campaign. Hagia Sophia should no more be a mosque than the Parthenon should be restored to the worship of Athena. These are shared historical monuments, where people of diverse backgrounds can see our common human experience. The world has plenty of churches and mosques. Let Hagia Sophia be Hagia Sophia.
Thomas F. Madden is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Saint Louis University. He is the author of Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World.
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