In Istanbul, Hagia Sophia, whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to turn into a mosque, is an architectural gem with an eventful history.
One of the symbols in Istanbul, a large architectural work, Hagia Sophia, nicknamed “the wonder of the wonders”, which became a museum in 1934, is today subject to a very political decision regarding its status. Several associations request conversion to a mosque. They are supported by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a nostalgic for the Ottoman Empire who today seeks to rally the Conservative electorate and has made this transformation a voting promise. Another section of the rich history of this Byzantine building.
Built in the 600s by the Byzantines who crowned their emperors, Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Istanbul’s major tourist attractions.
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It was the Byzantine emperor Justinian who started his construction in 532 in the city which was then called Constantinople. He commissioned architects Isidore de Milet and Anthémius de Tralles: to build the world’s largest Christian building. For it is nothing too beautiful: a hundred Hellenistic columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, green marble from Thessaly, white marble from Marmara, pink marble from Synada, yellow marble from Africa, black marble from the Pyrenees, stones black from the Bosphorus region …
The world’s largest dome
“Justinian builds a breathtaking basilica,” says Frédéric Hitzel, a CNRS researcher and specialist in Ottoman history, contacted by France 24. Visitors are impressed by its dimensions, especially by its dome which was then the largest in the world (55 meters high, 30 meters in diameter) and will remain so until the construction of St. Peter’s Church in Rome, a thousand years later. “
It takes a little less than six years for the more than 10,000 workers and 100 main contractors to build “Hagía Sophía”, which in ancient Greek means “divine wisdom”. After the inauguration 537, the church became the site of the Orthodox Patriarchate and welcomed the coronation of the Byzantine emperors.
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The story is not easy. Partially destroyed by many earthquakes, they are systematically built up. But it is also plundered by the Crusaders under the tutelage of Constantinople 1204. Its riches, especially the precious materials in its altars, are highly sought after. The Basilica then became a Roman Catholic cathedral until the passengers left in 1261.
Turned into a mosque
In 1453, the Ottomans seized Constantinople. While most of the city’s Christian sites are looted, Sultan Mehmed II orders that Hagia Sophia be preserved and then transformed into a mosque. It is the beginning of a new era for the basilica, to which is added a minaret.
“Mehmed II built the nearby Emperor’s Palace Topkapi and thus went to prayer every Friday in procession,” says Frédéric Hitzel. Sinan or Sultanahmet Mosque, known as the Blue Mosque inaugurated in 1616. “
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Over the centuries, three other minarets were added to Hagia Sophia and the Christian mosaics, which Mehmed II had not touched, were covered with plaster from 1750. Many restorations were carried out to preserve the building on foot, between 1847 and 1849, under Sultan Abdülmecid, which had the dome and the vaults consolidated and scrutinized the interior and exterior decoration. Some of the thick white lime that covered the mosaics is then removed.
Atatürk offers Hagia Sophia “to mankind”
But the tumultuous story of Hagia Sophia took a new turn in 1934. The President of the latest Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, decided to “offer it to humanity” by turning the mosque into a museum. The restoration between 1930 and 1935 makes it possible to fully discover the Mosaics, considered a reference to Byzantine art.
“Atatürk, who was very secular, wanted to see his country go into modernity and to him who went through this symbol, to a country that is open and ready to welcome the world’s Christians,” Frédéric Hitzel explains. And while Turkey suffered from it the economic crisis after the spate of 1929, which made Hagia Sophia a museum that made it possible to attract the whole world, and in particular investors’ attention, to Istanbul. “
Today, Sainte-Sophie is still a museum visited by millions of tourists every year. Last year it was even the most visited tourist attraction in Turkey, with 3.8 million people.
Nevertheless, Hagia Sophia has been the scene of several activities linked to Islam in recent years. Since the arrival of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in power in 2003, these have been multiplied within Hagia Sophia, with special sessions of reading the Qur’an or collective prayers in the square in front of the monument. In 2018, President Erdogan himself read a verse from the Qur’an there.
Since 2005, associations have repeatedly contacted the courts to demand a return to mosque status, with no success to date.