Friday’s historic prayers in Turkey’s Hagia Sophia Mosque marked the first acts of worship there in 86 years. Thousands of people took part in the traditional Friday prayers both inside and outside the historic mosque in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest metropolis.
Hagia Sophia, Turkish Ayasofya, Latin Sancta Sophia, also called Church of the Holy Wisdom or Church of the Divine Wisdom, a cathedral built at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the 6th century CE (532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. By general consensus, it is the most important Byzantine structure and one of the world’s great monuments.
Much of the Hagia Sophia’s edifice evident today was completed in the 6th century (primarily from 532–537), during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The original church to occupy the site (called the Megale Ekklesia) was commissioned by Emperor Constantine I in 325, razed during a riot in 404, later rebuilt, and destroyed once again in 532 before Justinian commissioned the building that exists today. Since then, mosaics were added throughout the Byzantine period, structural modifications were made in both the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, and features important to the Islamic architectural tradition were constructed during Ottoman ownership of the structure.
Hagia Sophia is not, in fact, the only name that the structure has gone by. Even now it’s known by several different monikers: Ayasofya in Turkish, Sancta Sophia in Latin, and Holy Wisdom or Divine Wisdom in English (alternate English translations of the Greek words Hagia Sophia). The name Hagia Sophia didn’t come about until around 430 CE. The first of the three Christian structures to be built on the site had another name altogether: Megale Ekklesia, or “Great Church.”
The Hagia Sophia is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site in Istanbul. For almost a millennium after its construction, it was the largest cathedral in all of Christendom. It served as a centre of religious, political, and artistic life for the Byzantine world and has provided us with many useful scholarly insights into the period. It was also an important site of Muslim worship after Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453 and designated the structure a mosque. It would remain a mosque until being converted into a museum in the 1930s.
The 1,500-year-old Unesco World Heritage site became a museum in 1934. But a Turkish court annulled its status, saying any use other than as a mosque was "not possible legally". President Recep Tayyip Erdogan then announced that the world-famous site would be ready for Friday prayers from 24 July, and he was seen joining worshippers at around midday. The secular opposition party that runs Istanbul has described the move to turn it back into a mosque after 86 years as political rather than religious.
Another chapter in the Hagia Sophia’s life began in 1453. In that year the Byzantine Empire ended, with Constantinople falling to the armies of Mehmed II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
The Byzantine Empire had been in decline for centuries and by 1453 the Hagia Sophia had fallen into disrepair, notes researcher Elisabeth Piltz in a 2005 British Archaeological Reports series book. Nevertheless, the Christian cathedral made a strong impression on the new Ottoman rulers and they decided to convert it into a mosque.
“What a dome, that vies in rank with the nine spheres of heaven! In this work a perfect master has displayed the whole of the architectural science,” wrote Ottoman historian Tursun Beg during the 15th century. Outside the church, four minarets would eventually be added, Kleiner writes that these “four slender pencil-shaped minarets” are more than 200 feet (60 meters) tall and are “among the tallest ever constructed.”
Changes occurred on the inside as well. Piltz writes that “after the Ottoman conquest the mosaics were hidden under yellow paint with the exception of the Theotokos [Virgin Mary with child] in the apse.” In addition “Monograms of the four caliphs were put on the pillars flanking the apse and the entrance of the nave.”
The style of the Hagia Sophia, in particular its dome, would go on to influence Ottoman architecture, most notably in the development of the Blue Mosque, built in Istanbul during the 17th century. It has since become one of its most popular tourist sites, receiving more than 3.7 million visitors last year. Although it has had a small prayer room since 1991, and calls to the faithful have been heard before, Friday's event is the first mass prayers inside the site since the 1930s.