The Hagia Sophia, once the grandest Christian church of the world, has been turned into a mosque. Built in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian in Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, Turkey, this magnificent structure was the principal church of the successor of Saint Andrew the Apostle, the Patriarch of Constantinople, head of the Orthodox Church. Slavic visitors from Kiev in the 900s were so astounded by the beauty of its mosaics, its exquisite liturgy, and its magnificent dome which appears to be suspended from the sky, that they reported, “we know only that God dwells there among men.” The experience of such beauty persuaded the Slavs to accept Christianity soon after the visit.
After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque. A replica was built across a garden which still stands today, the Blue Mosque. In 1935, the newly created secular Turkish state that rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire turned the building into a museum. Strategically, the building would cease to be a mosque and would not return to the Orthodox. A bittersweet compromise was reached. Muslims in the city still had plenty of mosques for worship, and the Greeks had the Church of Saint George in the Fener district of Istanbul.
On July 10th, 2020, President Ardogan of Turkey declared that the Hagia Sophia would return to its status as a mosque. I was anxious at first about the access to this historic building. I have visited it three times, and each time I have fallen in love with the place even more. I was pleased to learn that entrance would now be free to visitors (of course as long as the visit happened during non-prayer hours). Recently however I watched a video of the interior of the Hagia Sophia and I was heartbroken. The stunning, ancient Christian mosaics have been covered with cloth. Access to the second floor that contains one of the most famous depictions of Jesus has been blocked. Furthermore, I read that the Chora Church, or Church of the Holy Savior in the Fields, has also been turned into a mosque, and I suppose its significant Christian artwork will also be covered.
Christianity does not tie itself down to geography. Wherever two or more are gathered in the name of Jesus, we know He is present. The Church is made up of the living stones of believers and the King is present wherever the Eucharist is celebrated. It is acceptable in the Christian understanding of the faith and history that the Hagia Sophia after one thousand years as the grandest temple in the world is no longer a church (it ceased to be a church before the current Saint Peter Basilica in Rome was even built!). My heart breaks because the world is being deprived of rich religious and artistic heritage with the covering of the exquisite mosaics and other artwork. I cannot imagine a world where it is impossible to see the icon of Jesus on the second floor of the Hagia Sophia – what a loss. I certainly hope there are plans to make this artwork accessible.
Picture is from the public domain.