The Magnificent Hagia Sophia Khadiza Binte Mostafiz
Gli the cat is the guardian of the gorgeous historic architecture. She roams around the place with style as if she owns it. With thousands of Instagram followers and even a former U.S. president as a fan, Gli the cat is almost as famous as her home, Istanbul’s ancient Hagia Sophia.
The great Hagia Sophia is a magnificent historic architecture situated in the heart of the city of Istanbul, Turkey. The Turkish people call it Aya Sophia, and in Latin, it is called Sancta Sophia. The word Hagia Sophia or Sancta Sophia means Divine Wisdom or Holy Wisdom. Let’s travel back in time to explore the amazing history behind the majestic Hagia Sophia.
It all started after the year 325. The great Constantius II built a church named Magna Ecclesia or the Great Church on the foundation of a pagan temple. The church was built alongside another small one named Hagia Erene or Holy Peace. It was built by Constantine, the father of the emperor Constantius II. The church was very small, and it served as a cathedral until the Great Church was completed. The Great Church was made of timber roof, curtains, columns, and an entrance that faced west. During the riots in the year 404, this church was largely burnt down. After that, in the year 415, Theodosius II rebuilt the church and decorated it beautifully. At that time, The Great Church and Hagia Erene were both enclosed by a single wall and served the same clergy. Later on, in the year 532, during the Nika Revolt, most parts of the church, especially the basilica, was again burnt down.
On 23 February 532, only a few weeks after the destruction of the second basilica, eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I decided to build a third and entirely different basilica, larger and more majestic than its predecessors. Justinian chose geometer and engineer Isidore of Miletus and mathematician Anthemius of Tralles as architects. More than ten thousand people were employed to build the new church. Columns and other marbles , mosaics etc. were brought from all over the empire, throughout the Mediterranean. The cathedral’s interior surfaces were sheathed with polychrome marbles, green and white with purple porphyry, and gold mosaics. The exterior was covered with marble veneer. A large number of monuments outside the church enhanced its glory to the fullest. Mosaics depicting Jesus, his mother Mary, Christian saints, and angels enhanced the beauty of the walls. It took 5 years and 10 months for thousands of people to complete building this magnificent church. On 27 December 537, Justinian I inaugurated the new basilica with much pomp. The church was then officially dedicated to the Holy Wisdom, the Logos, the second person of the Trinity and was called Hagia Sophia. On the opposite side of Hagia Sophia was the former cathedral, Hagia Irene. Hagia Sophia was also the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, such as coronations. Like other churches throughout Christendom, the basilica offered sanctuary from persecution to outlaws. But sadly, during the earthquake of the year 553 and 557 caused cracks in the main dome and eastern semi-dome of Hagia Sophia. One year after the incident, on May 558, the eastern semi-dome fell and destroyed the ambon, altar, and ciborium. Emperor Justinian ordered immediate restoration of the church. The entire vault had to be taken down and rebuilt. Under Justinian’s orders, eight Corinthian columns were disassembled from Baalbek, Lebanon, and shipped to Constantinople. This reconstruction was finally finished in the year 562, which gave the church its present 6th-century form. After the reconstruction, the church’s height was increased, giving the building its current interior height of 55.6 meters. The architect also changed the dome type, erecting a ribbed dome with pendentives.
After that, the church went through many changes throughout the years. Because of earthquakes and other natural calamities, Hagia Sofia suffered a lot. It was reconstructed, renovated, and its beauty was enhanced throughout the flow of time. Even though Hagia Sophia started its journey as a roman Byzantian Christian cathedral, it was turned into a Greek Orthodox cathedral in 1054. In the year 1204, it was then turned into a Roman Catholic cathedral. Some years after that, in 1261 it reverted back to a Greek orthodox cathedral. It was even looted in 1204 by the Venetians and the Crusaders on the Fourth Crusade.
In the year 1453, Sultan Mahmud conquered Constantinople and named it Istanbul. The Turks called him Mehmed Al Fatih. The word Fatih means conquerer. When Sultan Mahmud conquered the land, delegates of foreign kings and rulers came and congratulated him. The magnificent Hagia Sophia made such a strong impression to the Sultan that upon entering his conquered land, he stepped into Hagia Sophia to pray two Raqa’h of Salah. The floor of the magnificent Hagia Sophia felt the touch of the Sultan’s blessed forehead as he kneeled in gratitude. “All praise to the Almighty Allah” echoed through the walls. He then turned it into a mosque. The bells, altar, iconostasis, ambo and baptistery were removed, and relics were destroyed. The mosaics depicting Jesus, his mother Mary, Christian saints, and angels were eventually destroyed or plastered over. To complete its conversion, Islamic architectural features were added, such as a minbar (pulpit), four minarets, and a mihrab – a niche indicating the direction of prayer (qibla) .
After Hagia Sophia became a mosque, it stayed a mosque for about 500 years. After the fall of Khilafah in 1924, the founder of secular turkey Mostofa Kamal Ataturk turned it into a museum, tortured and imprisoned scholars, banned hajj for decades, banned hijab, banned hifz schools, banned azaan, removed Arabic and introduced Latin alphabets to root out Islam and establish secularism. In 1931 it was closed to the public for four years. It was re-opened in 1935 as a museum. According to data released by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Hagia Sophia was Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction in 2015 and 2019. After more than 80 years, recently in July 2020, the Council of State annulled the Cabinet’s 1934 decision to establish Hagia Sophia as a museum. The 1934 decree was ruled to be unlawful under both Ottoman and Turkish law. Because after Conquering Constantinople, it became Sultan Mahmud’s private property. There are even many documents that he bought the monument for himself and made it into a mosque, a property not for the Turks but for the Muslims of the world. And even though it will return as a mosque, people of all faiths will have the permission to visit the magnificent Hagia Sophia.
Even so, the decision to rightfully reconvert it to a mosque, invoked condemnation from the Turkish opposition, UNESCO, the World Council of Churches, the International Association of Byzantine Studies, and many international leaders. Many people are bashing the current president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an and the Council of State for taking steps to reconvert it into a mosque. According to them, it’s a world heritage filled with cultures of both Christians and Muslims, so it should stay as a museum to establish harmony among Christians and Muslims. They also debate that it was an act of cruelty and injustice that Sultan Mahmud turned this magnificent church of the Christians into a mosque. Many moderate Muslims also some Scholars of the west are saying that turning it back into a mosque, when it was a church in the first place, goes against the teachings of Islam and its prophet Muhammad (SM).
Now, let’s cool our heads and think this through. Whether what they claim is right or wrong.
Firstly, before Constantius II built the first church, it was a pagan temple site. So, If we say that it was religiously injustice of Sultan Mahmud to convert a church of his “conquered land” into a mosque, the first blame actually falls on Constantius II for building a church on the foundation of a pagan temple! So it is clear that Christians uprooted a prior religion before establishing their own supremacy in that site. So do any Christian offer to share the Church with Pagans? Or were the Orthodox Christians ever content with sharing the Church with the Catholics?
There are some documents claiming that he bought it from the Christian authority with his own money. And even if someone declares it as false information, as the conqueror of the city, under both Islamic law and the norms of the time, he had the absolute right to convert it into a masjid. Even if we look at the world’s history, when the Muslims were expelled from Andalusia or Spain, they converted thousands of masjids into churches. Including the Grand Mosque of Cordoba – one of the largest and most magnificent masjids in the world. Needless to say, those were different times, and such was the norm.
Some Muslim scholars of the west said that it is against the teachings of Islam. Islam teaches us to respect people of other religion and their place of worship. Yes, that is absolutely correct! But it still doesn’t prove that converting Hagia Sophia to a mosque is against the Sharia law. Hagia Sophia wasn’t JUST a church! It was a political complex. It was the headquarter of emperor Constantine XI, and he planned and executed his political decisions from there. Moreover, the Christians held the belief that as long as Hagia Sophia would uphold its status of a Church, no one could defeat them. That’s why all the Christian countries of Europe and their colonial non-Muslim countries are criticizing Turkey. After the construction of Hagia Sophia was finished, Emperor Justinian cried out in joy, saying that his Hagia Sophia surpassed the temple of Solomon (Masjid Al Aqsa). No doubt, Hagia Sophia was a symbol of social, religious and most importantly, POLITICAL authority. The goal of Jihad is to establish the absolute political supremacy of Islam. And letting Hagia Sofia remain in the hands of the Christians completely defeats the purpose. It makes no sense to let Christians have control of such an important political institution that can contest Muslim political authority.
The Sultan never went against the teachings of Islam. He did everything in his power to make its Christian citizens feel safe. He proclaimed himself Protector of the Church and strictly forbade the persecution of Christians.
Since it’s absolutely clear that Hagia Sophia became the Sultan’s property and since he made it into a mosque, it was completely illegal to transform it into a museum or anything else.
Lastly, many people claim that this ruling is for political purposes, and the main intention behind it is to foster up support for the president or a political party. If someone is using this for a political agenda, that is between them and Allah; we need to look at the overall picture, and not worry about individual intentions.
No doubt, the islamophobes felt a gruesome stab in their heart as the magnificent Hagia Sophia returned to its rightful state as a mosque. The melody of Azaan echoed through the walls and Gli, the cat, received warm greetings from the Muslims. Hagia Sophia was blessed enough to feel the touch of the servants of the Almighty Allah as they kneeled to the ground chanting Allahu Akbar. Allah is the greatest. n
The information of the first half of this feature is taken from various reliable source including Wikipedia, hagiasophiaturkey.com, britannica.com etc
The debate presented in the last part of this feature is not my personal opinion, but it is the opinion of many renowned Muslim scholars, including Dr Zakir Naik, Mufti Menk and Yaseer Qadhi. Some social groups of Facebook also provided me with important information.