Hagia Sophia: Church of Divine Wisdom and Global Dispute (9 Facts)

Aug 2, 2020By Maria Dragatakis, BA Classics, Classical Languages and Literature
hagia sophia
The Desecration of Hagia Sophia by an unknown artist (left); with The Hagia Sophia as seen today, built in the 6th century AD (right)


Amid the ‘deafening silence’ of Western political, cultural, and theological circles a museum has been converted to a mosque. This is an act of political and religious indifference to a relic of Christian Faith that has survived through the millennia and has endured immeasurable turbulences from ‘friends and foes’ alike. Hagia Sophia has been the ‘apple of discord’ between the Greeks and the Turks, the ‘east’ and the ‘west’ for 567 years, but as history likes to repeat itself we are now witnessing a revival of this old dispute, at a time when the world is living an unprecedented health crisis with dire financial and political consequences.


Friday, July 24, 2020, will remain symbolic in history. Church bells in Greece were ringing in mourning, just like the lamentation on Good Friday, while in Istanbul for the first time in 85 years the Muslim call for prayers awoke the city urging people to their place of worship. Thousands of people responded to the call that marked a new ridge to the chasm between what we summarize as ‘east and west’. Read on for nine facts about Hagia Sophia’s history and legacy as a church, mosque, and museum. 


9. Hagia Sophia Was The Vision Of Emperor Constantine The Great

The Bosporus Strait connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and provides access to the Mediterranean Sea, via World Atlas


When the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great moved the capital of his Empire to the ancient Greek city of Byzantium in 330 AD he built a great city worthy of the title ‘new Rome’, but with clear Christian elements to commemorate the new religion for the empire, Christianity.


He named it after himself, Constantinople: the City of Constantine. Strategically located on the Bosporus Strait, on the part of the city that lies on European soil, Constantine the Great built his palace and Hagia Sophia, the Cathedral of Divine Wisdom, which was one of several great churches he built in important cities throughout his empire. The church was destroyed and rebuilt by his son Constantius and the emperor Theodosius the Great. 


8. The Church Was Destroyed Due To Civil Unrest

Detail From the Mosaic of Justinian I with Court Officials and the Praetorian Guard, Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

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During the Nika riots of 532, the church was burned down, but fragments of it have been excavated and can be seen today.


The Nika riots began on Tuesday, January 13, AD 532 during the rule of Emperor Justinian. There was civil unrest between city factions. Racing fans, already angry over rising taxes, became enraged at Emperor Justinian for arresting two popular charioteers and tried to depose him. That same evening after the horse races at the city’s Hippodrome the cry ‘Nika’ (Greek for “conquer,” an exclamation used to encourage the charioteers) resounded through the city. The rioters set fire to many city landmarks and official buildings that also engulfed the church.  It is indeed ironic when compared to modern history and the similar afflictions cities suffer today from riots, hooliganism, and general civil unrest.


The Ruins of Constantinople’s Hippodrome in 1600, from an engraving by Onofrio Panvinio in De Ludis Circensibus, via Smithsonian Magazine


So the whole church at that time lay a charred mass of ruins. But the Emperor Justinian built not long afterward a church so finely shaped, that if anyone had enquired of the Christians before the burning if it would be their wish that the church should be destroyed and one like this should take its place, shewing them some sort of model of the building we now see, it seems to me that they would have prayed that they might see their church destroyed forthwith, in order that the building might be converted into its present form, Procopius in De Aedificiis (Buildings) (I.1 – 22) dated 550 AD.


Emperor Justinian I, also referred to as Justinian the Great, ruled over the Byzantine Empire from AD 527-565, and has remained in history as a great political figure, an innovative reformer and mentor of the arts, particularly architecture and religious paintings.


7. Hagia Sophia Was Rebuilt And Revitalized 

The Hagia Sophia as seen today with the four minarets added in 1453, via livescience.com


Within six days the riots subsided, and Emperor Justinian immediately commissioned the rebuilding of Hagia Sophia, a divine mandate passed down by Constantine the Great. 


Ironically, the church was built by ‘pagan’ know-how and ‘pagan’ masterminds. The great Hellenistic Schools of Alexandria provided the education for the two ‘pagan’ architects that built the church, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus. The praetorian official, Praefectus Urbanus, or urban Prefect of Constantinople at the time was Phocas, a pagan, he was in charge of the initial supervision of the building until purged by the emperor.


When completed in less than 5 years in 537, Hagia Sophia was a unique marvel of architecture. A new cathedral, bigger and grander than anything else in the world, built atop the one destroyed by the thwarted rebellion, allowed Justinian to make a powerful statement about imperial power. In its present form, it is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, rich with mosaics and marble pillars and coverings.


Justinian’s basilica was both the culminating architectural achievement of Late Antiquity and the first masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Its influence, both architecturally and liturgically, was widespread and enduring in the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim worlds alike.


6. Divine Architecture, Engineered By Angels  

The Golden Dome of Hagia Sophia, 6th century AD, via Stanford University


The sheer size of the Church is formidable. It is built on two floors centered on a giant nave that has a great dome ceiling, along with smaller domes, towering above. Hagia Sophia’s dimensions are impressive when compared to any structure not built of steel. It stands 82 meters long and 73 meters wide. The dome is 33 meters in diameter and its peak rises 55 meters above the pavement.


It was an engineering triumph indeed. However, the structure was severely damaged several times by earthquakes, the original dome collapsed after an earthquake in 558, and its replacement fell again in 563. Supportive features were added to better secure the dome, but there were additional partial collapses in 989 and 1346.


The great dome of Hagia Sophia is the largest dome in the world for its time. Three hundred thirty-six columns support a grand vaulted brick roof that claims divine interference in its engineering, guided by an angel! The supporting structure is not visible, so the dome is ‘suspended from heaven’, with close-spaced windows lined in gold that add to an immaculate reflection of light.


Cross-Section of the Interior of Hagia Sophia, via University of South Florida


It also features an enhanced ventilation system, through the windows of the dome and the main building. It can accommodate 15,000 people in the interior, and the air always remains fresh and airy.


Upon its completion, Justinian is said to have exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”, referring to the Great Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Another irony from history is the recent referral to the Temple of Solomon by Turkey’s President Erdogan who compared the Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque to the victory over the Temple in the presence of the Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque, a religious milestone for Islam built over the ruins of the Temple of Solomon.


5. A Symbol For Christians 

En Touto Nika IN HOC SIGNO VINCES – the symbol of Christ’s name adopted to signify all victories are sought in the name of the Lord Christ


Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople for over 900 Years. Greece, Russia and Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the world referred to Hagia Sophia as the undisputed Orthodox symbol through the centuries.


This symbolism and veneration have endured through centuries of controversy, through wars and natural destructions and all acts of vandalism and sacrilege seem only to add to the divine aura of the edifice and strengthen its endurance. 


The symbol adopted by Constantine the Great X R (Chi-Rho), the first two letters of Jesus Christ in Greek, which purportedly Constantine saw in a vision along with the words “in this sign you will conquer.”


It remained as the symbol of Orthodoxy and was later adopted by the Crusaders in the Holy Wars, and particularly by the Knights of the Temple.


4. Hagia Sophia Became A Catholic Church In 1204 AD

Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople by Eugene Delacroix, 1840, via Musée du Louvre, Paris


After surviving all-natural disasters, Hagia Sophia could not survive the zealotry of religious and political attacks. 


In 1204, the Fourth Crusade came galloping into Constantinople. The crusaders ransacked the Hagia Sophia, desecrated it, then declared it a Roman Catholic cathedral instead of an Eastern Orthodox one.


In 1261, the Hagia Sophia returned to the Eastern Orthodox Church. 


3. Hagia Sophia Became A Mosque In 1453 AD

A Painting of the Sack of Constantinople by Theophilos Hatzimihail, 1928, in the Theophilus Museum of Lesvos, via Harvard University


Less than 200 years later, in 1453, Mehmet II’s Ottoman army came charging into Constantinople. The conquerors ransacked the Hagia Sophia, desecrated it, then declared it a Muslim mosque instead of an Eastern Orthodox cathedral. The same year they renamed the city, and it has been Istanbul ever since.


The lament of the last congregation that attended the Liturgy in Hagia Sophia resounds to this day. While war was raging in the fortified walls of the city, elders, women and children gathered in Hagia Sophia seeking divine intervention to save the city from the raiders. A hymn to Virgin Mary the General defending the Holy City, known as the Akathist Hymn, (Akathist Gk., for non-seated, chanted while standing) still marks the grief of the loss of the great city and is sung today on every Friday of the Orthodox Easter Lent. Another example of Byzantine Chants can be found at the Cappella Romana in a virtual Hagia Sophia – Cherubic Hymn in Mode 1.


2. Penultimately A Museum In 1934

Hagia Sophia as Museum, bearing the marks of its Christian and Islamic past, via Forbes

Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for 475 years until the Turkish President Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) in the 1930s, reformed Turkey into a more secular state and turned the mosque into a museum. 


Since 1934, the building has been a living example of religious coherence and harmony. It is the most popular tourist attraction in Turkey, drawing over 3.5 million visitors during 2019, in 1985 it was declared a UNESCO world heritage site.


The Hagia Sophia is a landmark of political, religious and cultural importance, so it comes as no surprise that it has been the envy of so many and that it has changed ownership and functions, so far six times in its history.


1. Hagia Sophia Has Been Reformed Into A Mosque

The Hagia Sophia from above, via the Daily Sabah


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decreed that the Basilica of Hagia Sophia will become a mosque once again, following a ruling from the Council of State and did so on July 24th, 2020.


There were reactions from the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians who grieved for the decision, claiming that Hagia Sophia ‘belongs not only to those who own it at the moment but to all humanity.’ The Patriarch of Moscow, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, also expressed concerns that turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque was a threat to Christianity.


UNESCO, as the safekeeper of the legacy and the custodian authority of the Museum, said that the building is inscribed on its world heritage list as a museum, which binds the Turkish state to ensure that “no modification is made to the outstanding universal value of the property.”


Pope Francis giving a statement on the Hagia Sophia, via Yahoo News


The Greek government in an extremely moderate reaction claimed that the decision offends all those who recognize Hagia Sophia as an indispensable part of world cultural heritage. The Greek people criticized the reaction as an inadequate tribute to a monument that bears such religious and cultural burden on the Greeks. 


The European Union expressed their disappointment and defined the act as ‘regrettable.’ Muslim countries and the Arab world have also expressed their reservations on the Turkish decree as they propagate respect to all religions and their place of worship, and do not wish to have further disputes, particularly religious, with the western world.


It is an extremely negative point in today’s geopolitical situation, negative for Islam, as it will only increase the present world sentiment of islamophobia and will further widen the chasm between the two religions. 


A rather lukewarm series of oppositions from all concerned that really amounts to nothing, no result. The Decree stands and Hagia Sophia is a mosque, for the historical records. The Christian population of the earth, from all denominations, was raided and the loot was Hagia Sophia, a very sacred and symbolic relic of faith.

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By Maria DragatakisBA Classics, Classical Languages and LiteratureMaria Dragatakis lives and works in Athens, Greece as an International Productions Coordinator for a local theater company. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Classics and Classical Languages and Literatures from Ohio University. Art is her passion which she is been blessed to relish in her daily tasks, in the world of the theater, and the city she lives in with its rich cultural heritage. Her work has taken her around the world in a never-ending journey, always seeking the finer sentiment of euphoria that only art can produce.