Hagia Sophia: From museum to mosque

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Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Church Life / Published Date:1 October 2020/Last Updated Date:16 October 2020


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On November 29, 2014, during his apostolic trip to Turkey, Pope Francis visited the Hagia Sophia Basilica in Istanbul. Hagia Sophia in Turkish Aya Sofya – is an ancient monument that dominates the entire city, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. At the end of the visit he wrote in Greek characters in the Golden Book of Guests: Hagia Sophia tou Theou, The Holy Wisdom of God.

The basilica, a culmination of technical expertise and architectural wonder, has been described as “a work of divine inspiration,” the “place between earth and sky,” the “eighth wonder of the world,” and the “symbol of imperial power.”[1] Hagia Sophia was commissioned and built in 537 by the Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, and then, after a fire, rebuilt in 562. It was the largest basilica in Christendom and the world – the Megale Ekklesia – the most important church in Constantinople, where the Byzantine emperors were crowned.

The city, founded by Constantine as the New Rome, also established itself as the religious capital of Christianity. Today the Greeks still call it Constantinople. It has had several names over time, including the ancient name of Byzantium.[2] The current name, Istanbul, comes from the Greek, from the common expression eis tēn polin, and means ad Urbem, that is “[go] to Rome,” as in the New Rome.[3]

La Civilta Cattolica

After 900 years, in 1453, with the conquest of the city by the Ottomans, Sultan Muhammad II transformed the basilica into a mosque. Finally, five centuries later, in 1934, the first president of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk (Father of the Turks), converted it into a museum.[4] You can still admire there some magnificent mosaics on a golden background, which cover the vaults, domes and walls. The most significant are the Deesis (“prayer”), where Christ, Our Lady and John the Baptist pray for our salvation, the icons of the Virgin Mary and the archangel Gabriel, and those of saints, emperors and empresses, and various floral and geometric motifs in a decorative style. The basilica has gone down in history as “one of the greatest architectural masterpieces ever.”[5]

In 1985, Hagia Sophia was proclaimed a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. It is one of the most beautiful monuments in Turkey, and in 2019 was admired by almost four million visitors.

The value of Hagia Sophia

The tormented history of the basilica has given it a unique value and extraordinary significance through the centuries; it has become a model of dialogue and an emblem of coexistence. Over the years, silently and without causing a stir, it has become a symbol of fraternity in the heart of Istanbul, a sacred space for everyone: Christians, Muslims, religious and non-believers, for anyone who believes in the dialogue between West and East, the encounter of cultures, spirituality and diversity. Who knows if Atatürk, when he transformed the mosque into a museum, had thought about the unpredictable outcomes of that historical choice!

An acute observer of the oriental world has grasped the role of Hagia Sophia: “In the case of Hagia Sophia, we can say that the very coexistence between the enormity and value of the building and the coexistence of unforgettable Byzantine mosques and Islamic medallions inside it for almost a hundred years[6] gave everyone the perception of an exception. The cathedral and its dome, welcoming those masterpieces of the former conquerors, conveyed the idea of something more than a museum; one could say it proclaimed a new message for the whole Mediterranean tormented by wars even in the name of God.” And he concluded shrewdly: “That museum announced that the absolutism of believers can be overcome, the space can be preserved to allow a path respectful of history and its truth as much as of complexity.”[7]

Saint Sophia was, in some way, an extraordinary “ecumenical” space.

The revocation of the decree of 1934

On July 10 of this year, the Turkish Council of State, at the request of an Islamic association that had appealed against the 1934 decision, revoked the decree that had transformed Hagia Sophia into a museum. In support of the request, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree to convert the museum into a mosque. He said it was “a grave mistake” that the place was no longer used for worship. This opened a new chapter in the history of the ancient basilica.

The first prayer session of the Muslim community took place on Friday, July 24. For the occasion, the mosaics of the Christian era were covered with black cloth or darkened with tricks of light and shadow. The prayer was led by the imam, who climbed the steps of the minbar and delivered the Friday sermon, holding an Ottoman sword with his left hand, which seemed to be that of Muhammad II. He explained that this “is a tradition” of mosques and that it is a symbol of conquest. Holding it in the left hand, and not in the right, excludes – according to a traditional meaning – a declaration of war against non-believers.

President Erdoğan attended the ceremony. He first visited the tomb of Muhammad II, “the Conqueror,” and then he himself started the prayer – a unique event that does not normally happen in any Muslim country – by reading a sura from the Koran called “of victory” or “of conquest.”

In fact, the date of July 24 was not chosen by chance. It is the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne of July 24, 1923, in which the Turkish borders were revised with respect to the previous Treaty of Sèvres (of 1920, after the end of the First World War), and those of Greece and Bulgaria. Turkey was required to renounce all claims on Cyprus, Syria and Iraq.[8] The political significance of the date is clear: Erdoğan intends to reaffirm the power of his country and reshape the borders of present-day Turkey.[9]

On August 20, the Turkish president signed another decree that transformed the church-museum of the Holy Savior in Chora into a mosque. The monument dates back to the 5th century and is a real jewel for the Byzantine mosaics and frescoes that can be admired there, including that of the famous Madonna, the Virgin of Tenderness. It was transformed into a mosque in 1511 and then into a museum by Atatürk in 1945.[10]

Reactions to Erdoğan’s decision

The transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque provoked a series of negative reactions. On Sunday, July 12, “International Day of the Sea,” at the Angelus Pope Francis said: “The sea takes my thoughts a little farther, to Istanbul. I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.”[11]

A few days earlier, the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill, had expressed “deep concern at the requests of some Turkish politicians to reconsider the museum status of Hagia Sophia […], one of the greatest monuments of Christian culture.” And he also explained its importance for Orthodoxy. The basilica “built in the sixth century in honor of Christ the Savior enchanted with its beauty the envoys of Prince Vladimir, to the point that the prince, after listening to their story, received baptism and baptized the Rus’, starting Christian civilization in the country.” Finally, he recalled that, “with bitterness and indignation, the Russian people have responded in the past and now respond to any attempt to degrade or trample on the ancient spiritual heritage of the Church of Constantinople.” He hoped for a rethink on the part of Turkish leaders, since maintaining Hagia Sophia’s up until then neutral status would facilitate “the further development of relations between the peoples of Russia and Turkey and […] peace and interreligious harmony.”[12]

The Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, did not hide his disappointment. Already in the days before the decision he denounced the risk of such a conversion: “It will push millions of Christians around the world against Islam.” By virtue of its sacredness, Hagia Sophia is a center of life “in which East and West embrace each other,” and its reconversion into a place of Islamic worship “will be a cause of rupture between these two worlds.” In the 21st century it is “absurd and harmful that Hagia Sophia, from a place that now allows the two peoples to meet and admire her greatness, can again become a reason for opposition and confrontation.”[13] It is a negative sign, therefore, in a historical time that needs unity and mutual respect.

On behalf of the Greek government, the Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, called the decision of the Turkish court “a provocation to the civilized world.” She also made it clear that she did not want to interfere in the internal politics of the Turkish government, but underlined “the unique value and ecumenical nature of the monument for humanity.” Finally, she said that the decision revealed the nationalism of the Turkish President and takes his country back six centuries.[14]

The position of the imam of Milan and president of Coreis (the Italian Islamic Religious Community), Yahya Pallavicini, is also opposed to the move: “Hagia Sophia has to remain a church and that’s it. […] This has been done for reasons of power and politics. […] In the history of Islam, when the wise Muslims visited a place of worship, such as a synagogue, a monastery or a burial place of other confessions, they always respected these places and their identity. Beginning with the episode of Caliph Omar who, when he entered Jerusalem and was offered the opportunity to pray in a church, refused out of respect for the Christian faithful.”[15]

UNESCO and the East

UNESCO has expressed its disappointment with the transformation of the museum into a mosque. In particular, its spokesperson pointed out that Turkey should have warned of the decision, or at least discussed it with the body. Any change in the status of Hagia Sophia – as stated in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention – had to be presented in advance and taken into consideration by the international body.

The Council of Churches of the Middle East reads in the move a hard blow to the dialogue between Islam and Christianity.[16] The decision of the Turkish state takes place at a historic moment, marked by various attempts at dialogue and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians. This was noted by the Secretary General of the Council, the Lebanese Souraya Bechealany, recalling the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace, signed in Abu Dhabi by Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb. The High Committee for Human Fraternity, constituted between Jews, Muslims and Christians on August 20, 2019, to promote the ideals contained in the above-mentioned document, also wrote that divisions should be avoided and mutual respect and understanding between all religions fostered. Everyone is also invited to avoid any step that could undermine interreligious dialogue, confirming the need to give priority to the values of coexistence.[17]

Erdoğan’s gesture

Beyond the wide-ranging reactions recorded, Erdoğan’s gesture could be interpreted as an affront to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace, as it represents a denial of what Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of al-Azhar signed: “Freedom is the right of every person; each individual should enjoy the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derive. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.”[18]

In the Document there is also a note concerning places of worship: “The protection of places of worship – temples, churches and mosques – is a duty guaranteed by religions, human values, laws and international conventions.”[19]

What is behind the conversion of Hagia Sophia?

The basic question is: what is hiding in the decision of the Turkish President? Does he want to use Hagia Sophia as a place of prayer? In Istanbul there was no need for a new mosque for prayer. Sunni Muslims have numerous places of worship at their disposal and right next door is the beautiful “Blue Mosque.”

This is confirmed by the editorial of the German Tagespost of July 11, 2020: “The debates on the status of Hagia Sophia are not about pastoral needs, but about symbolic and identity politics, sovereignty over culture and history. President Erdoğan […], alluding to Sultan Muhammad II, believes that turning the venerable patriarchal basilica […] into a mosque is a ‘right of the conquerors.’ As a believing Muslim he considers the conqueror Muhammad II as the founder, Constantinople the capital of the Ottomans, and Hagia Sophia as the imperial mosque.”

The problem is much wider. The conversion to mosque can be a way to cover the economic and monetary crisis that is affecting Turkey, now aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition, Erdoğan’s party lost local elections in Ankara and Istanbul in March, as well as the re-run of the vote in the capital, granted because of electoral fraud on May 25, 2019.

In history, the sultans behaved differently. If the conquest of Constantinople represented the end of the so-called “Symphony between Church and Empire,” the sultans put into effect the legal statute of Millet (with the dhimmi for those who pay taxes). This involved a limited decentralization for religious groups, in particular the Greek Orthodox.[20] It implies that the religious leader – in the specific case, the Patriarch of Constantinople, elected by the Synod, but confirmed by the Sultan – is the guarantor of Christian obedience. Paradoxically, this has ensured the survival of Orthodoxy under Turkish domination.[21]

Analogous was the behavior of Sultan Abdülmecid, when in 1849 he uncovered the Christian mosaics of Hagia Sophia, which had been whitewashed with lime. This was a way to relate to Europe and attempt dialogue with European sovereigns.

Mustafa Kemal, too, when he transformed the mosque into a museum in 1934, gave a signal to the Orthodox Balkan countries he wanted to befriend. On that occasion he took the name Atatürk, “Father of the Turks.”

Now Erdoğan’s gesture would contradict such historic behavior. It is an affront to world Orthodoxy; it challenges the ancient legacy of Constantinople; it is against European countries, and it is also a resounding slap in the face to those who still believe that Turkey is a secular country. The regime makes reference to the Ottoman Empire as the new model of modern Turkey, which from now on “will be independent of Western values such as law or democracy. Now it is on its way to the assertion of absolute power.”[22]

However, to understand the move, we need to go back a few years.

Turkey’s international relations

In September 2012, Erdoğan announced that he would soon go to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus to pray at Saladin’s tomb. But the conqueror of Jerusalem in 1187 is still waiting for his visit.[23]

This is due to the expansionist plans of Turkey in the Mediterranean, in Libya, in the North of Iraq, and especially in Syria, where the Turkish army, in order to fight the remains of the so-called Islamic State, launched an offensive against the Kurdish movement (formed by the different wings of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK), crossing the north of the territory. But the intervention of Russia in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad stopped him.

However, Erdoğan does not give up easily. Rather, his intent is geopolitical, to write a new page of history.  Just as Muhammad II succeeded in ending the Holy Roman Empire of the East, so now Erdoğan’s leadership intends to challenge not only the Christian world, including Orthodox Russia, but also those who guard Islam’s most sacred places, Mecca and Medina. Does he want to oppose Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates and Egypt, as a defender of Islam in the third millennium, converting Hagia Sophia to mosque again? In short, is the conversion of Hagia Sophia, symbol of dialogue and tolerance, an intolerant political act disguised under religious intentions?[24]

In conclusion, we should remember the testimony of Monsignor Luigi Padovese, Apostolic Vicar in Anatolia, who had his throat slit by his driver on June 3, 2010, in Iskenderun (Alexandretta): a murder whose perpetrators are not yet known. In his last homily, on May 30, 2010, he said: In Turkey one learns to accept diversity, but it is also important to be accepted. In this regard, the only way is that of cordiality and friendship. I have sought dialogue with the authorities and with the Muslim world and I am increasingly convinced that dialogue, before being an encounter and a confrontation of ideas, must be an encounter between people who have hearts as well as minds. If a dialogue does not involve the heart, it is of little use.”[25]


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 10 art. 4, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.1020.4

[1].      See Procopius of Caesarea, whose works are collected in the volume Santa Sofia di Costantinopoli. Un tempio di luce, eds. P. Cesaretti – M. L. Fobelli, Milan, Jaca Book, 2011, 57; 63; 65; 72.

[2].      The city is of Greek origin and its foundation dates back, according to Herodotus, to 668 B.C.; it would have taken the name “Byzantium” from king Byzas, or Byzantas. Cf. L. Padovese et al., Turchia. I luoghi delle origini cristiane, Casale Monferrato (Al), Piemme, 1987, 169.

[3].      The term “New Rome” was used by Paul the Silentiary, Description of Hagia Sophia, v. 165 and the Address to Two Romes (vv. 135-167), in M. L. Fobelli Un tempio per Giustiniano. Santa Sofia di Costantinopoli e la ‘Descrizione’ di Paolo Silenziario, Rome, Viella, 2005, 42-45; 117.

[4].      See the history of the city in F. Cardini, “Un luogo di controversie. E un ‘ritorno’ che divide”, in Avvenire, July 10, 2020.

[5].      L. Padovese et al., Turchia. I luoghi delle origini cristiane, op. cit., 170.

[6].      The gigantic circular medallions reproduce the names of Allah, the prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two nephews of Muhammad.

[7].      R. Cristiano, “Quel che l’Europa distratta non capisce di Santa Sofia”, in Reset. Voci dal mondo, July 24, 2020.

[8]        Cf. M. Jégo – A. Kaval, “Turquie. Revanche sur le traité de Sèvres”, in Le Monde, August 2-3, 2020, 14.

[9]                See the editorial of Le Monde, July 26-27, 2020; F. Peloso, “Erdogan usa la religione per non perdere il potere”, in Internazionale, July 31, 2020.

[10].    See L. Padovese et al., Turchia. I luoghi delle origini cristiane, op. cit., 171;
www.lastampa.it/esteri/2020/08/21/news/turchia-dopo-santa-sofia-diventa-moschea-la-chiesa-museo-di-san-salvatore-in-chora-1.39215867

[11].    Francis, Angelus of July 12, 2020.

[12].    “Turchia: Kirill (patriarca di Mosca), ‘preoccupazione per richieste di riconsiderare lo status museale di ‘Hagia Sophia’ a Istanbul”, in Sir, Information Agency, July 6, 2020.

[13].    E. Campanile, “Santa Sofia diventa una moschea”, in Vatican News, July 20, 2020.

[14].    See G. Antonazzi, “Santa Sofia torna ad essere una moschea”, in Days Italia News, July 11, 2020. (previous page)

[15].    “Imam Magliana: ‘Santa Sofia? Atto politico’”, in Adnkronos, July 12, 2020.

[16].    See S. Falasca, “Turchia. Divide Santa Sofia riconvertita in moschea. Le reazioni del mondo”, in Avvenire, July 14, 2020; “Le reazioni alla trasformazione di Santa Sofia in moschea” (www.retesicomoro.it/reazioni-trasformazione-santa-sofia), July 16, 2020.

[17].    See A. Lomonaco, “Prima preghiera islamica a Santa Sofia tra imponenti misure di sicurezza”, in Vatican News, July 24, 2020.

[18].    “Human Brotherhood for World Peace and Common Coexistence” (Abu Dhabi, February 4, 2019), in Civ. Catt. 2019 (cf. laciviltacattolica.com/human-fraternity-for-world-peace-and-life-together/)

[19].    Ibid.

[20].    See A. Riccardi, “Nostalgia di coabitazione”, in A. Melloni et al. (eds.), Cristianesimo nella storia. Saggi in onore di Giuseppe Alberigo, Bologna, il Mulino, 1996, 131-158.

[21].    Cf. N .Thon, Quellenbuch zur Geschichte der Orthodoxen Kirche, Trier, Paulinus, 1983, 66f; 173-175.

[22].    A. Erdoğan, “Sainte-Sophie en mosquée est une gifle au visage des ceux qui croient encore que la Turquie est un pays laïque”, in Le Monde, July 17, 2020. Asli Erdoğan is a French writer.

[23].    See M. Jégo – A. Kaval, “Turquie. Revanche sur le traité de Sèvres”, op. cit., 14.

[24].    See “Sul mar che ci lega con l’Africa d’or”, in Limes. Il Turco alla porta, No. 7, 2020, 22.

[25].    A. Lomonaco – B. Capelli, “Dieci anni fa veniva ucciso monsignor Padovese, vescovo del dialogo”, in Vatican News, June 2, 2020.