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 centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, aka Byzantium, and of Christianity itself — its first iteration was built in 325 by Emperor Constantine on the site of a pagan temple.
The current structure is the third Hagia Sophia on the site. The first was destroyed by fire following religious riots in 404 and the second also burned following an insurrection in 532. Reconstruction started immediately and took only six years to complete. Hagia Sophia was initially clad in white marble and visible for miles from ships in the Sea of Marmara.
For many centuries, Hagia Sophia was the largest interior space in the world and, with a 108 ft. light-filled dome floating 180 ft. above the marble floor, it’s 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 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 Constantinople long remained a sore point in Catholic–Eastern Orthodox relations. As I said, it’s a fabled place.
After the Ottoman victory in 1453, the great church was declared a mosque. Minarets were added and its glorious frescoes and mosaics plastered over. Ataturk made Hagia Sophia a museum in 1935 and began the painstaking process of revealing and restoring its artwork.
More recently, Turkish Islamists pressured the government to change Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque. They achieved their goal in 2020 so access to Hagia Sophia is now limited, its frescoes and mosaics are again hidden by paint or curtains to protect delicate Muslim sensibilities, and its marble floor is carpeted over. Shameful! Nonetheless, if there is still anything left to see, don’t pass up an opportunity to visit this extraordinary building.
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