Church, museum and UNESCO heritage site, mosque – Hagia Sophia of Turkey was all this and more

New Delhi: After decades of being a museum with no religious affiliation, the iconic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey marks its first Ramadan as a Muslim place of worship.

Built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I as a Christian cathedral, it was converted into a mosque in 1453 – after Ottoman forces under Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople or present-day Istanbul. In 1934 it became a museum and in 1985 it was designated as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Historic Areas of Istanbul.

In 2020, however, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan renamed the sixth-century monument a mosque.

Erdogan made the announcement in July 2020, after a high court in Turkey overturned the 1934 ruling that made the domed structure a museum.

Widely seen as an attempt to undo Turkish secularism, Erdogan’s decision drew widespread international criticism, including reactions from neighboring Greece, UNESCO, the European Union, the World Council of Churches and many international leaders like Pope Francis and US President Joe Biden. , then presidential candidate.

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Turkey, and the Palestinian terror group Hamas were among those who welcomed the verdict.

However, the spread of the Covid pandemic and resulting restrictions on physical gatherings have delayed the actual opening of the monument for worship.

On Saturday, for the first time in 88 years – since Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in 1934 – “taraweeh” prayers, a special evening prayer during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, were held at Hagia Sophia. The monument had been declared open for worship for Muslims on July 24, 2020, but the mosque could not be used until now due to Covid pandemic restrictions.

ThePrint delves into the significance of the Hagia Sophia, a landmark revered by both Turks and Greeks, which has been described by Smithsonian Magazine as “a cultural collision of epic proportions” – a monument that interweaves the heritage of Christianity medieval to the Ottoman Empire. , resurgent Islam and modern secular Turkey.


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Church of Holy Wisdom

Known as the Turkish Ayasofya, the Latin Sancta Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia is a popular UNESCO World Heritage Site and arguably Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction.

The domed structure is located in the city of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, which served as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The tall central dome measures approximately 102 feet in diameter and 184 feet in height.

Its interiors are decorated with ornamental stone inlays and multicolored mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary, the infant Jesus, angels and other Christian symbols. However, since the monument was transformed into a mosque in July 2020, the Turkish authorities have covered these symbols with curtains.

One of the earliest depictions of the monument is in a woodcarving by Pieter Coecke van Aelst in 1553. Made available by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the work depicts a procession of Suleiman the Magnificent, with the Hagia Sophia in the background, along the horizon.

The particular construction of the monument, however, put it on shaky ground – literally. The building nearly collapsed in an earthquake in 557, just 20 years after it was built, and collapsed again, after an earthquake in 1346. Even in recent years, experts have expressed their concern that a “tremor” could cause the entire monument to crumble. .

A church, a mosque, a museum

Hagia Sophia was built during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century and is the work of Greek architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus. Completed in 537 CE, the monument was originally called Megale Ekklesia (Great Church).

During the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia served as the site of imperial ceremonies, including coronations, and was considered the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith.

In 1453, the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror seized Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, and with it, the Hagia Sophia. Subsequent sultans made additions to the monument, incorporating minarets, a library, a fountain and a mosque complex. Some mosaics have also been coated.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Turkish Republic from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, had Hagia Sophia designated as a museum in 1934, as part of his reforms aimed at building a secular edifice. the country.

The monument was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

Erdogan’s “distraction” in the face of Turkey’s economic difficulties

When Erdogan decided to rename Hagia Sophia as a mosque in 2020, he was accused of diverting attention from his country’s economic woes, made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an editorial for Forbes, author-journalist Melik Kaylan described the move as a “desperate act of political theater” by a populist strongman. “He [Erdogan] tried every other ploy open to his species, demagogically pushing the emotional buttons on the public while concentrating power and the economy (tank) in his own hands,” Kaylan added.

A Arab News The report, meanwhile, said the move was interpreted as an attempt to rally voters around the ruling party.

It has also been claimed that this is part of Erdogan’s efforts to deepen Turkey’s Muslim identity and return to the Caliphate. However, some surveys aimed at gauging the emotions of the Turkish people have suggested that many, even among Erdogan’s supporters, were not entirely happy with the direction in which their country was heading.

Turkey-Greece animosity

Both Greece and Turkey are members of NATO and are meant to be allies. But centuries of animosity – dating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire – have soured relations between the two countries. The Hagia Sophia issue has arguably worsened ties between the two neighbors, who already compete in separate spheres of influence on the island of Cyprus.

In July 2020, reports emerged that the Turkish flag was publicly burned in Thessaloniki in Greece in response to Turkey’s decision to redesignate Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Church bells rang in mourning all over Greece.

A Harvard International Review article points out that not only was Hagia Sophia considered the heart of the Orthodox Christian faith, but Erdogan’s new designation opened up old wounds between Turkey and Greece.

While Greek Christians largely accepted Ottoman rule and experienced “high levels of religious tolerance”, this changed with the bloody Greek War of Independence in 1821, which was fought with the successor Ottoman Empire, Turkey, explains the newspaper.

The revolt paved the way for an independent Greece in 1832, but massacres occurred on both sides of the war.

“The controversy over Hagia Sophia can be understood through a historical lens as an assertion of Turkish sovereignty, coupled with Greek outrage over hurt national pride,” the newspaper said.

(Editing by Poulomi Banerjee)


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