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.