Faces of Hagia Sophia, from Orthodox Cathedral to recent threats of turning it into a mosque again

The cathedral's layers of history mean different things to different people, from Emperor Justinian's dream to recent threats by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

1.Architectural masterpiece

On 23 February 532, Emperor Justinian I wanted to built the most majestic basilica to honour God at the site where two previous cathedrals had stood. He chose engineer Isidore of Miletus and mathematician Anthemius of Tralles to design the building which had columns and other marbles brought from all over the empire, and there were more than ten thousand people employed to create it. Despite the sheer magnitude of the work, the emperor, together with Patriarch Menas, inaugurated the new basilica on 27 December 537 just five years and 10 months after construction began. There is a legend that states that on the day when it was first opened, Emperor Justinian cried out, “Soloman, I have surpassed you!” The mosaics inside the structure were only completed during the reign of Emperor Justin II (565-578).

2. Greek Orthodox Cathedral

The cathedral was the main seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, the principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies and coronations.

3. Crusaders

The cathedral was desecrated and plundered by the Crusaders in 1204. They also replaced the Patriarch of Constantinople with a Latin bishop after years of feuding following the Great Schism of 1054. As a result, many of Hagia Sophia’s riches can be seen in the treasury of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.

READ MORE: Greek PM visits Hagia Sophia, followed by service at the seminary of Halki

4. Invaders and conquest

Constantinople fell to the attacking Ottoman forces on 29 May 1453, and Sultan Mehmet II allowed his troops three days of unbridled pillaging and looting in the city after it was captured. Invaders rushed to Hagia Sophia and battered down its doors before storming in to attack the trapped worshippers, participating in the Divine Liturgy at the time. What followed was bloodshed. The building was desecrated, while those inside – mainly women, children and the elderly – were enslaved, sexually violated and even slaughtered.

5. Mosque

Sultan Mehmet II immediately ordered that the cathedral be converted into a mosque. And so, Hagia Sophia became the first imperial mosque of Istanbul, a small minaret was erected on the southwest corner of the building in 1481, while Sultan Bayezid II (1481-1512) built another minaret at the northeast corner. A later sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1520-1566) ordered that the frescoes above the narthex and imperial gates depicting Jesus, Mary and other emperors be covered in whitewash plaster.

Different symbols represent different times in the Cathedral’s history. Photo: Meriç Dağlı on Unsplash

6. Museum

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s secular founder, turned the structure into a museum in 1935. Work has since been done to remove the plaster from many of the priceless mosaics, many of them damaged during the Islamification of the structure

READ MORE: Petition to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque denied by Turkish Constitutional Court

7. Landmark

Hagia Sophia is the most recognisable landmark of modern-day Istanbul and draws millions of tourists who marvel the brilliant architecture. In recent months, some 1.8 million visitors entering the Hagia Sophia museum in the first six months of 2019.

8. Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia was chosen as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1985. As such, the Turkish government needs to consult with UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee when making decisions regarding its use and further conversion to a mosque again.

9. Mosque again 

Turkey’s pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper on Tuesday reported that an impending ruling by Turkey’s Council of State could pave the way for museums that operated as mosques during Ottoman times to once again operate as places of worship. The application of such a decision could result in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Hagia Sophia to be used as a mosque, a threat that has often been made by the Turkish government, and more recently by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a March gathering where he said that it was a “very big mistake” to turn it into the museum.

READ MORE: UNESCO approval would be needed to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque

10. Legend and lore

There are many legends associated with the magnanimous structure, with most focused on the return of Orthodoxy to the basilica. In 2008, the sudden appearance of an Angel in the dome became an item of curiosity and speculation. Another legend focuses on the disappearing Constantine, the last emperor of Constantinople before it was sacked. His body was never found after the conquest so the legend grew that he would one day return, entering the basilica by the imperial entrance.

Local legend has it that the lost emperor will return to Hagia Sophia from the Imperial Gate Entrance. Photo: Wikipedia, Myrabella

+1 The Cat of Hagia Sophia

FUN FACT: For the last 14 years, Hagia Sophia has been home to a European short-haired cross-eyed cat called Gli.