No tour of Istanbul can fail to include Hagia Sophia. The same is true enough of the British Museum in London or the Louvre in Paris, but Hagia Sophia is more than a museum: it's also spent different stretches of its near-millennium-and-a-half of existence as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, a Roman Catholic cathedral, and a mosque. Stripped of its religious function in the mid-1930s by the administration of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, remembered for his creation of a secular Turkish republic, the majestic building has spent the past 85 years as not just a museum but the country's top tourist attraction. Now, according to a decree issued last week by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hagia Sophia will become a mosque again.
"Erdogan, like his predecessor Ataturk, appears to be using the fate of the Hagia Sophia to make a political statement and score some points with his supporters," writes Ars Technica's Kiona N. Smith. But so did Emperor Justinian I of the Eastern Roman Empire, who "ordered the cathedral’s construction in the first place for similar reasons."
Built on the site where two cathedrals had previously stood, both burned down in different revolts, "the Hagia Sophia has always been as much a political landmark as a religious or cultural one — so it’s not surprising that it has also changed hands, and functions, at least four times in its history." Ataturk's secularization of Hagia Sophia entailed a restoration of its historic features: "Christian mosaics that had been plastered over in the late 1400s were carefully uncovered, and they shared the domed space with Muslim prayer niches and pulpits."
You can get a clearer sense of what the building's architecture and decoration reveal in the animated TED-Ed lesson at the top of the post. Educator Kelly Wall points to, among other features, the ancient fortifications that "hint at the strategic importance of the surrounding city, founded as Byzantium by Greek colonists in 657 BCE."; the foundation stones that "murmur tales from their homelands of Egypt and Syria, while columns taken from the Temple of Artemis recall a more ancient past"; and, beneath the golden dome that "appears suspended from heaven," reinforcing Corinthian columns, "brought from Lebanon after the original dome was partially destroyed by an earthquake in 558 CE," that offer a reminder of "fragility and the engineering skills such a marvel requires." The BBC 360-degree virtual tour just above goes into greater detail on these elements and others.
According to reports cited by Hyperallergic's Hakim Bishara, "tourists will still have access to the site, although it might be closed to visitors during prayer time." Still, "art historians and conservationists worry that the Turkish authorities might decide to cover up or remove the centuries-old Byzantine mosaics and Christian iconography that adorn the celebrated structure, as was done in other converted churches in Turkey in the past." Good job, then, that irrepressible television traveler Rick Steves has already shot his episode on Istanbul, which (from 9:34) naturally features a visit to Hagia Sophia. But whether as a museum, cathedral, a mosque, or whatever it becomes next, the building will surely remain what Steves called "the high point of Byzantine architecture" and "the pinnacle of that society's sixth-century glory days." And no leader of Turkey, no matter what their beliefs about church and state, will want the tourists to stop coming.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.