The Hagia Sophia: From Church, to Mosque, to Museum

The city of Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire was famous for its influence on the religion of Christianity, and for the city to once be the home of many Christian artifacts and a predominance of the practice of Christianity. A large and noble artifact from Christian Byzantium is the Hagia Sophia, which was once the largest cathedral before being converted into a mosque in 1453 A.D. and then a museum in contemporary Istanbul. The history of the Hagia Sophia connected with the religion and politics of the emperors and sultans who ruled the Anatolian Peninsula, and still shows the past and present history upon the cathedrals’ very walls.

The Hagia Sophia was full of Christian iconography, including depictions of seraphim, the saints, and depictions of the life of Jesus Christ painted upon the walls and ceilings of the cathedral. The mosaic in the vestibule of the Hagia Sophia depicts the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus Christ, and flanked by both Emperor Constantine I and Emperor Justinian I. The great emperor’s hold two pieces of architecture that were important to the Christian culture of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire.

Emperor Justinian I presents to Jesus Christ the Hagia Sophia, an architectural feat that Emperor Justinian I ordered the reconstruction of the cathedral while he was in power. The reconstruction was not only to show the emperor’s devotion to Christ in the aftermath of the Nika revolts, whether calculated for political gains or not, but to also show the known world the emperor’s power and wealth in rebuilding the church into a massive complex. Emperor

Constantine I presents the very city itself, the city of Constantinople, for which the city is named after. Beautifully decorated in gold mosaic tiles of Christian iconography, the large mosaic artwork hangs above the entrance in the Narthex leading to the Sanctuary of the Hagia Sophia. The mosaic not only signify a holy relationship with God and the nobility, but to the Christian architecture as well.

Then the fall of Constantinople occurred in 1453, when Fatih Sultan Mehmed II attacked the city in order to pillage the city for its presumed wealth, and to control the trade routes that passed through the city from East Asia to Europe, as well as the freshwater ports of the Black Sea and the Sea of Marma, leading to the Mediterranean Sea for further trade routes into Northern Europe. Fatih Sultan Mehmed II prevailed, and the taking of the city marked the age of the Ottoman Empire in the Anatolian Peninsula, and marked Constantinople as the empire’s new capital.

Along with the conquered Byzantine Empire fell the title of a predominantly Christian city. While few churches still stood on the outskirts of Constantinople in the aftermath of the siege, the Hagia Sophia was rededicated as an Islamic mosque, and decorated accordingly with geometric tilework and Arabic calligraphy. The mosaics of saints and angels were either chipped away or covered with plaster so the ceramic tiles could have a suitable base when placed on the walls. Most of the Ottoman population abided by the religion of Islam, which their holy book, the Koran, forbade the depiction of living beings, because trying to do so would be trying to be a god, which is blasphemy against their god, Allah. With that teaching in Ottoman minds, the Christian iconography was covered up with less offensive art in the Hagia Sophia, and was then used for Islamic services as an Islamic mosque.

The Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque until the early 20th century, when the large building was converted into a museum. The decision was likely for political purposes, in order to pacify the dispute among Muslims and Christians on either restoring the Hagia Sophia back into a cathedral to honor the building’s history in the Byzantine Empire, or to continue using the building as a mosque since the Ottoman Empire; and also to bring the country of Turkey into the modern age to mimic Europe.

After the building was rededicated as a museum, a restoration of the Hagia Sophia began, and workers uncovered the Christian iconography that had been hidden for centuries. For museum purposes, sections of the building were untouched to show patrons the Ottoman influence for the mosque, while other sections of the building showed restored and chipped mosaics of Christian iconography that once adorned the cathedral. Despite both religions wanting the Hagia Sophia to become their religious house of worship, the introduction to using the space for both Christians and Muslims would help promote tolerance and to share a historical building that embodied the services of Christianity and Islam throughout the centuries.


7 thoughts on “The Hagia Sophia: From Church, to Mosque, to Museum

  1. John Mullen

    Your abstract on the history of the Hagia Sophia reminds me a lot of the artifact analysis we did in COR-330-13: Central Asia: World Crossroads. It seems the Hagia Sophia became a crossroad between Christianity and Islam, even though they didn’t occupy the space at the same time. Many of the pieces we did analyze that were found on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean Sea had influences from various cultures. Often, the Silk Road was a place where ideas were exchanged and cultures mixed. This is somewhat different from the Hagia Sophia, where cultures certainly seem to have clashed. I’m surprised that a single place of Christian worship was allowed to stand, even one as magnificent as the Hagia Sophia, while the rest were destroyed in the siege. I would have imagined that a war between religions would have resulted in the destruction of all things holy to the other. We found that in some cases the Silk Road artifacts contradicted the some of the stories being told. In most cases, it was a discrepancy that would make China look weaker or less pure. For example, bodies were found that were tall, white, and blonde haired in the desert in China. They appeared to be Greek and the dating of the bodies shows they arrived in China long before any outsider was supposedly allowed in. I’m curious if you found any discrepancies in your research about the Hagia Sophia between the Christian and Islamic versions of what happened. I would be surprised if you didn’t. Overall it was a good read and I learned something new. Thanks.

  2. Helena Schillinger

    The example of the Hagia Sophia as a point of the syncretic nature of Istanbul is a fantastic choice. With such a rich history as a place of worship and faith, one can only imagine the number of people who walked the floors.
    Your descriptions of the artwork that decorated the building during the times when different religions occupied it are very interesting. Obviously the style changed dramatically as the building changed hands, and I wonder, perhaps, how the people who had lived near and worshipped in the building while it was an Christian church felt when the look changed so drastically. I imagine that so imposing a structure must have been a constant, a focal point for the city, even in a subconscious way, the way the Stephansdom is in Vienna.
    I don’t know, however, if there would be any documentation of that, or if it would have survived the ensuing years and turmoil, or if you ran across anything even remotely like that in your research.
    The way art can influence and be influenced by a culture is really interesting. For example, I did my research into an Italian Jesuit who became court artist to the Qing Emperor in the early 1700s. Castiglione, the artist, is just one example of how different cultures and art styles can influence each other, and that wasn’t even in such a hotly-contested area as Istanbul.
    I would be interested in knowing more about how present day relations in Turkey affect the Hagia Sophia, how it’s viewed by the locals, how the art is displayed, and how many tourists attend it. You cover all of this very briefly at the end of your piece, but I think it’s worth spending some more time on.

  3. Joseph Zika

    The notion that you presented about how the slow conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and how the old Christian depictions were removed in favour of mosaics and abstract imagery, as opposed to just tearing down the whole structure just goes to show the true awe and wonder that the Hagia Sophia has been exciting masses even then. The architecture alone is a stroke of engineering genius, not to mention the sheer size of the now museum that it has become. In my paper, I talked about how the Ottoman Empire influenced the Silk Road, particularly how the architecture that the Ottomans found in Istanbul had managed to diffuse and warp across the Islamic world in central Asia, from the combined influences of the Christian dome theme, with the lavish Persian archways, and somewhere along the way the shift from a pure dome to the world famous stereotypical onion domes that can be found across central Asia, and on the world famous Taj Mahal. I do like how they have managed to accommodate both religions as well as acknowledge the historical value of the architecture itself.

  4. Devin Carlin

    It is interesting to see this conflict between the Christian and Muslim faiths, because my paper for Central Asia: World Crossroads had a very similar theme. I talked about how the rise of Islam on the silk road pushed out the older Persian empire, and led to the downfall of the predominant Persian faith – Zoroastrianism. One has to wonder how well Christianity would have survived if it was not already prevalent in other areas of the world. It makes me wonder what would have happened to Zoroastrianism if it had been present in another area of the world when Persia was conquered. Perhaps it would be more prevalent today. Regardless, it is interesting to me to study the effect that Islamic iconoclasts had on art and culture throughout history. We have spoken about this topic a number of times in class, and it isn’t just Christianity that was affected. This issue carries on into modern times, with ISIS destroying a number of non-Muslim religious artifacts in regions they control, including the Bamiyan Buddhas – gigantic stone statues of the Buddha that were utterly destroyed by ISIS. It is encouraging to see that the Christian artifacts in the Hagia Sophia were not entirely destroyed, and that some of them can still be seen today, because for many other artifacts, that is no longer true.

  5. Justine Donahue

    This is definitely an interesting and informative take on this particular conflict between the Christians and the Muslims. I al easily able to connect it to my research I have done on the Circassians. The Circassians have been Sunni Muslims for the past three or four hundred years, though as late as the first half of the nineteenth century some of the woodland Abadzekh (native Circassian religion), seem to have retained a form of Christianity. Although this occurred, there was no conflict between the two. The mosque of Abu Darwish, who is an Adyghe descendant, is one of the oldest mosques in Amman and considered as a major landmark, which is similar to the idea of the Mosque that you spoke about in your paper being turned into a museum. While the Hagia Sophia Mosque was converted for political reasons, the mosque of Abu Darwish is still used for religious purposes.

  6. Ryan Sogge

    This is a very interesting piece, both for the historical information and the insight on architecture and style. I had heard of this building before, but did not know much about its history (in fact, just by looking at a photo of it, I assumed it was still a mosque). I think your essay does a very good job of explaining the global forces that led to the Hagia Sophia changing when it did, and you identify some of these things specifically, like the fall of Constantinople and later, the political pressure to calm tensions between Muslims and Christians.
    I find it particularly interesting that this building was such a pivotal location in the more modern disputes between Muslims and Christians in the city, and it is fascinating to me that a simple structure of stone and brick can be so valuable to so many people. By neutralizing the mosque and not making it into a cathedral again, the city of Constantinople (Istanbul) was working proactively to ease tensions locally and around the world, and the idea that a neutral space will help people come together is a good on, in theory (although I don’t know what kind of effect it’s actually had in reality).
    For my project in my course on Vienna, I wrote about the metro system in the city of Vienna and, more specifically, the stations designed by Otto Wagner around the turn of the 20th century. In Austria, and around the world at that time, there were waves of mini revolutions, so to speak, in the ways of art, architecture, urban planning, and other similar fields. It is interesting to me that the Hagia Sophia was being converted to a museum right around the time that Wagner was shying away from the classic, grandiose styles of architecture in favor of more practical, simple, and humble designs. I think these two are related because it reflects the global trend of escaping from the long established ways of the past in favor of a more socially useful future. In Vienna, this took the form of a metro system and new, stylish stations, but in Constantinople, this meant converting a religious center in a more modern, accessible-for-everyone intellectual space. In both cases, the cities transformed slightly as they took a step out of their pasts, and joined the more modern world that surrounded them. This idea is particularly important to me in a time like this because our very own political system is potentially on the verge of a similar experience (electing Bernie, Hillary, or Trump would send American attitudes in a new direction). Nowadays, more and more people are questioning the status quo, and this often leads to radical new ideas, like the conversion of a mosque to a museum or the construction of a subway where there once was a fortress wall. For these reasons, I think our topics are interesting connected.


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