Turkey 3: Aya Sofya
31 August 2011
To me, Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) remains today the most impressive yet intriguing building of the historic Istanbul.
Established for centuries as the Greek Patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople (Greek Orthodox Christians, 562–1204, 1261–1453), it also briefly served as a Roman Catholic cathedral for 57 years (1204-1261), and was later converted to a mosque when the Ottoman conquered the city (and Byzantine empire) in 1453.
That year, Sultan Mehmed II ordered the conversation of the church, stripping it of its Christian attributes (furniture, bells, altar), plastering the mosaics, and bringing in the Islamic mosque kit de rigueur: minbar, mihrab and 4 large minarets cornering the edifice. It lived as such until the 1930’s, holding the title of Istanbul’s number-one mosque for many centuries, and becoming an architectural model and inspiration for half a dozen of other great mosque constructions in the city—yes, including the neighbouring famous Blue Mosque. In 1931, it was secularized and converted to a museum.
How ironic! Now living in an era when religious beliefs often tend to negate negotiations, where creeds and traditions are fought for, I find this tolerance of the site’s history quite fascinating.
The secularization and transmutation of a religious building for another use isn’t an uncommon sight anymore, churches are now being flipped into apartment buildings without much protest.
But the transfer and appropriation of a religious building, built in ecclesiastical customs, as a sacred place of worship for christians, to another religious group and to become their place of worship, suddenly fulfilling different spiritual functions altogether and become sacred to their own—not to mention the city’s principal edifice of this type—is quite strange and even unorthodox to many (no pun intended).
I was discussing this with a [Turkish] friend one evening in Istanbul.
He suggested: “Oh well, you know how it was: Constantinople was conquered, the Ottomans came in, and they were not very tolerant. Christians were slayed, and they took control what was left. They didn’t leave anything untouched.” To which I replied: “Well no, actually, quite the opposite: they must have been quite tolerant to that matter to accept the conversion in the first place!”
Anyways, the best is, abiding to this same sagacious rationale of architectural immunity, they even kept the name of the building throughout the years, no matter church or mosque: Ἁγία Σοφία, from the Greek meaning “Holy Wisdom”.