You cannot talk of visiting Istanbul without making a trip to the Hagia Sophia, it’s almost like a tourist pilgrimage when visiting the city. A massive dome that dominates the skyline of the old town of Istanbul.
And for good reason. For this museum is perhaps one of the greatest religious structures in the world, built to fulfill the ego of a king, establish the authority of an empire, worship a God and instill the fear of God among the normal people.
Walking into it today, even after after close to two millennia leaves one impressed.
A massive dome envelopes you and impresses on you both its grandeur and your insignificance.
Gold mosaics glisten against the rays of the sunlight that pass through its many windows all around the building creating a sea of dazzling gold that glistens all around you. At the very centre of the structure is a tabernacle that shines the brightest. When it was a church, that was where the altar and the crucifix would have been.
The church was built on the orders of Justinian I, and was designed by two mathematicians, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. When it was first built, the church was dedicated to the Wisdom of God (Sophia, also known as the Logos and the second person within the Christian Trinity) a name that it retains till this day (Hagia Sophia).
Because of its position as the cathedral of the Eastern Roman capital, the Hagia Sophia became the focal point of Eastern Orthodox Church for over a millennia, a position that it still holds today, with the Ecumenical Patriach of Constantinople ranked as first among equals within the 300 million strong Eastern Orthodox Church.
The growing power of the city and its rising political role led to a clash with Rome, that saw its church as the traditional first among equals. This came to a head when the capital of the Roman Empire was shifted from Rome to Constantinople. Consequent with that shift in temporal power was the belief that Constantinople. This political shift led to a religious split between Christians living in the East and West. And in 1054, the Bishop of Rome and the Patriach of Constantinople (New Rome), mutually excommunicated each other.
Excommunication is the biggest ‘weapon’ that can be used in Christianity, it means that the two churches are no more in a spiritual sharing/communion. This act, that begin because of politics, led to two very different Christian traditions that have developed and diverge over close to a millennia.
More than 1000 years since the split, steps to re-establish communion have been taken.
The Hagia Sophia has stood for close to 1500 years, first as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral and later as a Ottoman Muslim mosque.
When the Ottomans took over the city in the 1400s, destroying the Hagia Sophia was out of the question.
This building was an architectural marvel when it was first built and continues to remain thus today. It’s structure was so impressive that the dome concept that it built has become the model on which Muslim mosques around West Asia were built. This building was the inspiration behind the Blue Mosque opposite it, as well as many other major Ottoman mosques all over the city. It made sense to repurpose the church into a mosque, and that was exactly what Sultan Mehmed the Conquerer ordered. The religious icons were destroyed and the paintings were plastered over in following with Muslim tradition, a massive restoration programme was undertaken to restore the building (that had fallen into disrepair during the rule of the Christians).
It remained a mosque for more than 400 years, until 1931, when the independent Turkish government closed it to convert it into a museum and the plaster behind these icons was revealed to the world.
When you see this mosaics, it just strikes you how much more impressive this structure would have been at its prime..
If you were a simple worshiper, would you not have bowed down?
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