Istanbul has many wondrous sights but it’s hard to conceive anything more magnificent, more grand, or more fabled than Hagia Sophia, the Church of Divine Wisdom. A Christian basilica, the heart of the Eastern Roman Empire aka Byzantium, and once the centre of Christianity itself, the first Hagia Sophia was built in 325 by Emperor Constantine on the ruins of a pagan temple.
The current structure is the third Hagia Sophia on the site. Constantine’s basilica was destroyed by fire following religious riots in 404 and the second iteration was destroyed in 532 during the Nika Riot, the consequence of a hotly contested chariot race that became a rebellion. Much of Constantinople went up in flames and more than 30,000 rioters were herded into the Hippodrome and slaughtered by Emperor Justinian’s troops. Reconstruction started immediately and the current Hagia Sophia took six years to complete. Originally clad in white marble, it was visible for miles from the Sea of Marmara.
For many centuries, Hagia Sophia was the largest interior space in the world and its 108 ft. light-filled dome, floating 180 ft. above the marble floor, is a marvel of Byzantine architectural innovation. The Ottomans appropriated Hagia Sophia’s design for their mosques and that tradition continues.
In 1203-1204, Hagia Sophia was looted by Roman Catholic Crusaders who stole its gold and silver ornaments and desecrated the space. A woman ‘laden with sin’ sang and danced on the altar which was smashed. Mules were brought into the sanctuary to carry away gilded silver plate, doors and furnishings. One of the animals slipped on the church’s marble floor and was disemboweled. The sack of Hagia Sophia and of Constantinople remains a sore point in Catholic–Orthodox relations. As I said, a fabled place.
After the Ottoman victory in 1453, the great church was declared a mosque. Minarets were tacked on and its glorious frescoes and mosaics plastered over. Ataturk made Hagia Sophia a museum in 1935 and began the painstaking process of uncovering and restoring its artwork.
More recently, Turkey’s Islamic extremists pressured the government to change Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque. President Erdogan granted their wish in 2020 so access to Hagia Sophia is now forbidden during prayer times, frescoes and mosaics are again hidden by paint or curtains to protect delicate Moslem sensibilities, and its marble floor is carpeted over. Shameful!
Nonetheless, if there is anything left to see, don’t pass up an opportunity to visit this extraordinary building.
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