The Hagia Sophia is a massive architectural wonder in Istanbul, Turkey, that was constructed approximately 1,500 years ago as a Christian church in Istanbul. The Hagia Sophia, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Parthenon in Athens, is a long-lasting emblem of the global metropolis. However, as remarkable as the building is in terms of itself, its position in the history of Istanbul—and, perhaps, the world—is equally crucial, touching on issues of international politics, religion, art, and architecture.
The Hagia Sophia anchors Istanbul’s Old City and has acted as a beacon for both Orthodox Christians and Muslims for centuries, as its importance has changed with the prevailing culture in the Turkish city. Istanbul is located on both sides of the Bosporus Strait, a waterway that connects Europe and Asia. Thus, the Turkish metropolis of over 15 million people is located on two continents.
History of Hagia Sophia in Turkish Reign
The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) was constructed as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. However, its role has evolved many times throughout the ages. In 360 A.D., Byzantine Emperor Constantius commissioned the building of the first Hagia Sophia. Istanbul was known as Constantinople at the time of the first church’s construction.
During the Crusades, Constantinople and, by extension, the Hagia Sophia were briefly under Roman authority in the 13th century. During this time, the Hagia Sophia was badly damaged, but it was restored when the Byzantines reclaimed control of the surrounding city. The Ottomans, headed by Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed—known as Mehmed the Conqueror—captured Constantinople in 1453, ushering in the next major era of development for the Hagia Sophia. Istanbul was renamed by the Ottomans.
Renovations of the Hagia Sophia
Because Islam was the Ottomans’ primary religion, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Many of the original Orthodox-themed mosaics were covered with Islamic lettering created by Kazasker Mustafa zzet as part of the conversion. The panels or medallions placed on the nave columns bear the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four Caliphs, and the Prophet’s two grandsons. The main dome’s mosaic, which is thought to represent a picture of Christ, was also covered with gold calligraphy.
During this time, four minarets were built to the original construction, partially for religious reasons (for the muezzin call to prayer) and partly to strengthen the edifice after earthquakes that rocked the city around this time. Between 1847 and 1849, under the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid, the Hagia Sophia received major renovations supervised by Swiss architects the Fossati brothers, next to the Blue Mosque. The Hünkâr Mahfili (a separate chamber for emperors to pray in) was dismantled at this period and replaced with another near the mihrab.
Hagia Sophia Today
Even now, some 100 years after the Ottoman Empire‘s demise, the Hagia Sophia’s position in politics and religion remains controversial and significant. The famous building was maintained as a museum by the national government from 1935—nine years after Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey—to 2020. Beginning in 2013, certain Islamic religious leaders in the nation attempted to reopen the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. The Turkish Council of State and President Erdoan categorized it as a mosque in July 2020.