Peace Disruptors–The Conversion and Repurposing of Places of Worship (Part 3): The Odyssey of Byzantia’s Hagia Sophia from Christianity to Islam


Prof Hoosen Vawda – TRANSCEND Media Service

“The Eastern Roman Empire was the site of repeated and enormous Peace Disruption due to Inter-Abrahamic Religious conflicts.”[1]

The Hagia Sophia Mosque Complex overlooking the Bosporus In Istanbul, Turkey

26 Nov 2022 – Part 3 in the series of publications on conversions of existing places of worship, into a building for the remembrance and supplication of God, of another religion, presents the protracted odyssey of the Hagia Sophia in present day Istanbul, in Turkiye under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, born om 26th February 1954[2], a member country of the European Union.[3]

It was a Friday on 24th July 2020, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan  joined huge crowds as he led the first Friday, namaaz,[4] the compulsory Islamic  prayer at Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia. This public event, following the declaration of redesignating the historical Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. has sparked global orthodox, Christian anger.[5]

The main congregational area inside Hagia Sophia Mosque where the Muslim devotees are performing the Namaaz on Friday, 24th July 2020, the first such prayer in 86 years.[6]

Wearing an Islamic skullcap, President Erdogan[7] recited a verse from the Quran before the call to prayer was heard from the four minarets of the building.  The highest administrative court revoked the sixth-century monument’s status as a museum on 10th July2020 and 66-year-old Erdogan then ordered the building to reopen for Islamic worship, as a mosque, upsetting and further straining ties with Greece and the orthodox church.  President Erdogan had earlier described the day’s events as fulfilling the ‘dream of our youth’ anchored in Turkey’s Islamic movement.   The Friday prayers, which are the first in 86 years inside the structure, saw thousands of worshippers travel across Turkey and globally to join the inaugural namaaz in the repurposed Christian cathedral.  However, the orthodox leaders declared to observe a day ‘of mourning and of manifest grief’ as a result of the inaugural prayers being held at what was one of Christendom’s most significant cathedrals for centuries and originally built as such, causing great peace disruption.

Many of the worshippers, who remained in gender segregated areas during the inaugural prayers, camped outside the structure overnight, to secure a position inside the mosque for the main Friday, prayer (Namaaz). Most wore face masks but there has been concern at overcrowding as police officers scuffled with small groups of faithful trying to enter already packed areas. One man was pictured being carried away from the scene on a stretcher by officials amid reports of devotees fainting due to the intense heat.

Earlier, in July 2020, President Erdogan issued a decree restoring the iconic building as a mosque, despite international criticism, after a Turkish high court ruled that the Hagia Sophia had been illegally made into a museum more than eight decades ago.  President Erdogan said: “This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains. It was the greatest dream of our youth. ‘It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.” He also described its conversion into a museum by the republic’s founding leaders as a mistake that is being rectified. The complex has since been renamed “The Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque”. However, the conversion, sparked dismay in Greece, the United States and other Christian churches, who called on Mr Erdogan to maintain the sixth-century structure as a museum,  it was,  as a verification of Istanbul’s multi-religious heritage and the structure’s status as a symbol of Christian and Muslim unity, over the past recent decades, noting the bloody battles fought during the Christian crusades, in earlier centuries. Pope Francis himself expressed his sadness at the decision.  A Turkish association which was committed to having Hagia Sophia reconverted to a mosque, again appealed to the Turkish courts, several times in the past 15 years to annul the first President, Kemal Ataturk’s decree. In the latest campaign, it told Turkey’s top court that Ataturk’s government did not have the right to overrule the wishes of Sultan Mehmet, even suggesting that the President Ataturk’s signature on the document was forged. This argument was based on a discrepancy in Ataturk’s signature on the edict, passed around the same time that he assumed his surname, from his signature on subsequent documents.  President Erdogan, who has championed Islam and religious observance during his 17-year rule, supported the Hagia Sophia campaign, saying Muslims should be able to pray there again and raised the issue, which is popular with many pious AKP voting Turks, during local elections, in 2019.  Turkish pollster Metropoll found that 44% of respondents believe Hagia Sophia was put on the agenda to divert voters’ attention from Turkey’s economic woes.[8]

In order to understand the complexity of the present day transformation of Hagia Sophia it is necessary to briefly review the history of this iconic structure, through the ages, from antiquity.

Rome, growing into one of the largest empires in human history is an incredible achievement. The Roman Kingdom, then Republic, and then Empire gained this status through more than a thousand years of expansion, conquest, trade, and internal development.[9] Eventually Rome became so large that the government had difficulty ruling and protecting its vast territory. Many tribes were moving into Roman lands and could not be stopped due to weakening Roman leadership, moral decadence, infighting, drunken debauchery and political instability.[10]

In 286 CE, the Emperor Diocletian decided to divide Rome into two sections to try and stabilize the empire. For 100 years, Rome experienced more divisions and in 395, it finally became The Western Empire and The Eastern Empire.  This division changed Roman life and government forever. There were now two emperors in each half and they governed independently. The capital of the Western Empire was Rome and the capital of the Eastern Empire was Constantinople. Following this split, the Eastern Empire thrived. Constantinople was well-protected because it was on a peninsula that could be easily defended. It was also located on the frontiers of the empire allowing imperial armies to respond more easily to external attacks and threats. The Eastern and Western Empires had similarities and differences. They both considered themselves Roman and celebrated the history of Rome. Although they governed separately, their forms of government were similar and they enforced some of the same laws. However, as time went on their differences grew, especially in religion, language, and culture.

The Western Empire spoke Latin while the Eastern Empire spoke Greek. The Western Empire was Roman Catholic and practiced traditional Roman culture. The Eastern Empire was dominated by the Eastern Orthodox religion and had a more diverse culture influenced by different people. The Western Empire suffered from multiple invasions by barbarian tribes and was finally sacked in 476 CE. The Eastern Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire survived for almost 1000 more years before being overtaken by the Ottoman Empire in 1453.[11]

However, under such generous economic prosperity in Byzantia, did Hagia Sophia, Turkish Ayasofya, Latin Sancta Sophia, also called Church of the Holy Wisdom or Church of the Divine Wisdom, was built.[12]  It is an important Byzantine structure in Istanbul and one of the world’s great monuments. It was built as a Christian church in the 6th century CE (532–537) under the direction of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. In subsequent centuries it became a mosque, a museum, and a mosque again. The building reflects the religious changes that have played out in the region over the centuries, with the minarets and inscriptions of Islam, as well as the lavish mosaics of Christianity.  The original church on the site of the Hagia Sophia is said to have been ordered to be built by Constantine I in 325 on the foundations of a pagan temple. His son, Constantius II, consecrated it in 360. It was damaged in 404 by a fire that erupted during a riot following the second banishment of St. John Chrysostom, then patriarch of Constantinople. It was rebuilt and enlarged by the Roman emperor Constans I. The restored building was rededicated in 415 by Theodosius II. The church was burned again in the Nika insurrection of January 532, a circumstance that gave Justinian I an opportunity to envision a splendid replacement. In A.D. 532, the construction of the structure began as a result of Nika riots. At that time, Emperor Justinian I ruled the area for 5 years and became infamous due to the high taxes that he imposed. The riot was an attempt to throw out Justinian by besieging him in his palace. Thus, in the wake of these revolts, a new Church was built on the site of a torched church named Hagia Sophia.

To build the cathedral, Justinian contacted two architects named Anthemius and Isidore the Elder. The monument was built in less than 6 years. However, the builders faced a problem in building the dome roof. The dome used a system of piers to channel its weight. However, two decades later, the roof collapsed but withstands to date with some repairs. The structure has 40 windows for the sunlight to emanate.  The structure has two floors, ground floor and a gallery above it. This was to segregate the people based on gender and class they belonged to. To enter the cathedral’s nave from the narthex there are nine doorways.

A map depicting the division of the Roman Empire by Emperor Theodosius  in 395 AD

The resultant Hagia Sophia was built in the remarkably short time of about six years, being completed in 537 CE. Unusual for the period in which it was built, the names of the building’s architects: Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, are well known, as is their familiarity with mechanics and mathematics. The structure now standing is essentially the 6th century edifice, although an earthquake caused a partial collapse of the dome in 558 (restored 562) and there were two further partial collapses, after which it was rebuilt to a smaller scale and the whole church reinforced from the outside. It was restored again in the mid-14th century. For more than a millennium it was the Cathedral of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. It was looted in 1204 by the Venetians and the miscreants of the Fourth Crusade, with brutal, rampant and indiscriminate massacre of women, children and men, until the streets were red with blood, ankle deep, as reported in the annals of history.[13]

After the Turkish conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II had it repurposed as a mosque, with the addition of a wooden minaret (on the exterior, a tower used for the summons to prayer), a great chandelier, a mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca), and a mimbar (pulpit). Either he or his son Bayezid II erected the red minaret that stands on the southeast corner of the structure. The original wooden minaret did not survive. Bayezid II erected the narrow white minaret on the northeast side of the mosque. The two identical minarets on the western side were likely commissioned by Selim II or Murad III and built by renowned Ottoman architect Sinan in the 1500s.  In 1453, Mehmed II, sultan of the Ottoman Empire took over the Byzantine Empire and was converted into a mosque. Hagia Sophia underwent the phase of construction again with four minarets more than 200 feet tall, one of the tallest minarets ever constructed

In 1934, the then, Turkish President, Kemal Atatürk secularised the building, and in 1935 it was made into a museum. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic secularized the structure and turned it into a museum. As per Turkish Council of Ministers, ‘Due to its historical significance, the conversion of the mosque into a museum will please the entire Eastern world and its conversion to a museum will cause humanity to gain a new institution of knowledge.[14]  In 1985 the Hagia Sophia was designated a component of a UNESCO World Heritage site called the Historic Areas of Istanbul, which includes that city’s other major historic buildings and locations. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the controversial decision in 2020 to convert the building back into a mosque. Islamic prayers were held shortly after the announcement with curtains partially concealing the building’s Christian imagery. As Turkey’s most popular tourist destination, the Hagia Sophia remained  open to visitors.[15]

Turkey’s First Lady Emine Erdogan joined prayers at the Hagia Sophia Mosque as women and men maintained segregated worship throughout the day[16]
Inset: President Erdogan in supplication to the Lord of the Abrahamic faiths, during the Friday Islamic Prayer in the repurposed Hagia Sophia Mosque, in Istanbul, on Friday 24th July 2020 [17]

The Hagia Sophia combines a longitudinal basilica and a centralized building in a wholly original manner, with a huge 32-metre, main dome supported on pendentives and two semidomes, one on either side of the longitudinal axis. Though Justinian’s domed basilicas are the models from which Byzantine architecture developed, the Hagia Sophia remained unique, and no attempt was thereafter made by Byzantine builders to emulate it. In plan, the building is almost square, but, looked at from within, it appears to be rectangular, for the great semidomes at east and west prolong the effect of the roof. There are three aisles separated by columns with galleries above and great marble piers rising up at either end to support the dome. The columns are of finest marble, selected for their colour and variety, while the lower parts of the walls are covered with marble slabs. The curtain walls (non-load-bearing exterior walls) above the galleries and the base of the dome are pierced by windows, which in the glare of daylight obscure the supports and give the impression that the canopy floats on air.[18]  Like the elaborately carved cornices and capitals, the marble columns survive, but the rest of the original decoration, including most of the mosaics that adorned the upper parts of the walls and the roof, have perished. They were all described in the most glowing terms by early writers. But enough does survive to warrant the inclusion of Hagia Sophia in the list of the world’s greatest buildings. Art historians consider the building’s beautiful mosaics to be the main source of knowledge about the state of mosaic art in the time shortly after the end of the Iconoclastic Controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries. Parts of the redecoration that the church underwent in the last half of the 9th century have been uncovered in recent times. In their colour and technique these show a continuation of the early Byzantine tradition: the preference for rather strong, clear tints and the effects created by such techniques as the tilting of tesserae and the turning of gold cubes. The preoccupation with light seems stronger than ever: in badly lit places in the vestibule and gallery, the gold ground displays a high percentage of silver cubes among the gold ones to add to the sparkle. Stylistically, new ground had been broken. Particularly in faces, the tesserae are set in wavy lines which break up the modeling in bandlike configurations. Linearism (the expression of form in terms of line rather than colour and tone) had taken a great step forward.[19]

In the arrangement and distribution of pictures, new features are visible. In the apse of the Hagia Sophia, the Virgin with Child sits surrounded by a vast expanse of gold. The tendency to depict iconlike, motionless, mosaic figures isolated on a gold background has pre-Iconoclastic precedents, but from the 9th century onward it became a leading decorative principle. 19th drawings show that the decoration of the Hagia Sophia also included comprehensive series of saints. Of these saints, which stood in rows on the nave walls above the galleries, only a few have survived. According to the drawings, those of the middle zone represented prophets and those of the lower depicted holy bishops. Higher up there may have been a guard of angels and, in the centre of the cupola, probably a mosaic of Christ. The disposition of the pictures, in other words, may have corresponded to that which at this time was being tried out especially for the new church architecture and which was to become the accepted system of decoration in the middle Byzantine churches.[20]

The Christian, Byzantine Era Mosaics, in Hagia Sophia, adorn the inner aspect of the dome, alongside Islamic Calligraphy depicturing the Names of Allah on the right and His Prophet Muhammad Peace be upon Him, on the left.

Hagia Sophia was beautifully decorated with mosaics within the centuries during Byzantine period. These mosaics depicted Virgin Mary, Jesus, saints and emperors or empresses. The history of the earliest mosaics is unknown as many of them were destroyed or covered during Iconoclasm. The known ones start from the reestablishment of orthodoxy and reach its height during the reigns of Basil I and Constantine VII.

During the fourth crusade in 1204, Latin Crusaders sacked many Byzantine buildings including Hagia Sophia. Many beautiful mosaics were removed and shipped to Venice. After the Ottoman occupation of Constantinople in 1453, with the transition of Hagia Sophia into mosque, the mosaics were covered whitewashed or plastered. With Fosatti brothers’ restoration in 1847, the mosaics got uncovered and were copied for record. But they still remained covered until 1931 when a restoration and recovery program began under the leadership of Thomas Whittemore.  In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk ordered that Hagia Sophia would become a museum, the recovery and restoration expanded then. However, many of the great mosaics that Fosatti brothers recorded had disappeared probably with the earthquake in 1894.[21]

It is also interesting to note the timeline of events affecting the Hagia Sophia’s long odyssey:-[22]

360 – Inauguration of Hagia Sophia, under the rule of Constantius II.

404 – The original roof was destroyed in a fire during unrest generated by Patriarch John Chrysostom and Aelia Eudoxia, wife of Arcadius.

415 – Restored and rededicated by Theodosius II.

532 – Burned down once again in the Nika riots beginning in the Hippodrome of Constantinople.

537 – The reconstruction was completed with the lavish decorations and ornaments.

553 – An earthquake shook Hagia Sophia, weakening the crown of Eastern arch.

558 – Another earthquake hit, causing a break between the two halves. A few months after, the main dome collapsed alongside the eastern semi-dome.

562 – Reconstruction of Hagia Sophia was completed.

726 – Hagia Sophia was stripped of figural illustrations and sculptural work with the abolition of veneration of icons by Leo III (Byzantine Iconoclasm).

787 – Veneration of icons was re-instituted by the Second Council of Nicaea by Empress Irene and her son Constantine VI.

814 – The Council of Constantinople was held in Hagia Sophia led by Patriarch Theodotus I, reestablishing Iconoclasm.

843 – The “Triumph of Orthodoxy”, Empress Theodora, widow of the late Emperor Theophilos, abolished Iconoclasm, commenced the redecoration of Hagia Sophia.

859 – Fire damaged the Hagia Sophia.

869 – Another earthquake caused a half dome to collapse.

989 – Another massive earthquake caused the collapse of the western dome.

994 – Hagia Sophia was reopened after reconstruction took place.

1204 – Hagia Sophia became a Roman Catholic Cathedral after the Sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade.

1261 – Hagia Sophia converted to an Eastern Orthodox Church again with the end of the Latin Empire and the recovery of Constantinople by the Empire of Nicaea under Michael VIII Palaiologos.

1344 – An earthquake caused severe damage throughout the striation.

1346 – Various parts of the building collapsed and the church was closed.

1354 – Hagia Sophia reopened after construction.

1453 – Following the fall of Constantinople, Mehmed the Conqueror orders the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in accordance with the right of the sword.

1573 – The exterior was significantly strengthened and altered to follow the customary mosque appearance.

1717 – Renovations on the interior began.

1734 – Hagia Sophia had additions to restorations, such as the building of a library and a Quranic school.

1847 – The structure underwent another restoration.

1849 – The mosque was reopened.

1934 – Founding President of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s cabinet approves his decision to change the building’s function to a museum.

1935 – The building reopened as a museum.

2020 – The decision to convert the Hagia Sophia to a museum was annulled by the Council of State; the Turkish President signs a decree converting it into a working mosque.

The Bottom Line, is summarised in what President Erdogan stated “the nearly 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia would remain open to Muslims, Christians and foreigners, but added that Turkey had exercised its sovereign right in converting it to a mosque and would interpret criticism of the move as an attack on its independence.”[23]  The United States, Russia and church leaders were among those to express concern about changing the status of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, a focal point of both the Christian Byzantine and Muslim Ottoman empires and now one of the most visited monuments in Turkey.

Greece’s culture ministry described the court decision as an “open provocation” to the civilized world. Erdogan has sought to shift Islam into the mainstream of Turkish politics in his 17 years at the helm. He has long proposed restoring the mosque status of the sixth-century building, which was converted into a museum in the early days of the modern secular Turkish state under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. “The decision was taken to hand over the management of the Ayasofya Mosque. the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” the decision signed by Erdogan said.[24]

Some questions remain to be answered! In Islam, imagery is prohibited and at present the Icons and associated Christian imagery are covered up by special partitions, so that Islamic prayers can proceed in the repurposed Hagia Sophia.  It is debatable as to what will the ultimate fate of these religious icons be, in the future.  The situation is reminiscent of the royal arguments, murders, and even battles, between the supporters of icons and the iconoclasts in the Byzantine era of the past.  The Byzantine Iconoclasm ‘image struggle’, ‘war on icons’) were two periods in the history of the Byzantine Empire when the use of religious images or icons was opposed by religious and imperial authorities within the Orthodox Church and the temporal imperial hierarchy. The First Iconoclasm, as it is sometimes called, occurred between about 726 and 787, while the Second Iconoclasm occurred between 814 and 842.[25]

According to the traditional view, Byzantine Iconoclasm was started by a ban on religious images promulgated by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian, and continued under his successors.[26] It was accompanied by widespread destruction of religious images and persecution of supporters of the veneration of images. The Papacy remained firmly in support of the use of religious images throughout the period, and the whole episode widened the growing divergence between the Byzantine and Carolingian traditions in what was still a unified European Church, as well as facilitating the reduction or removal of Byzantine political control over parts of the Italian Peninsula.[27]

The odyssey of Hagia Sophia continues, and maybe, the lure of tourism together with the financial benefits, Turkiye will allow the status quo to rain in these constrained economic times, for the benefit of future generations.  It is sad, however, that once again religious differences have played such a critical role in deciding the future of Hagia Sofia in each era, over the past 1500 years and probably until eternity.


[1] Personal quote by the author, November 2022.





























Professor G. Hoosen M. Vawda (Bsc; MBChB; PhD.Wits) is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.
Director: Glastonbury Medical Research Centre; Community Health and Indigent Programme Services; Body Donor Foundation SA.

Principal Investigator: Multinational Clinical Trials
Consultant: Medical and General Research Ethics; Internal Medicine and Clinical Psychiatry:UKZN, Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine
Executive Member: Inter Religious Council KZN SA
Public Liaison: Medical Misadventures
Activism: Justice for All

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 28 Nov 2022.

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One Response to “Peace Disruptors–The Conversion and Repurposing of Places of Worship (Part 3): The Odyssey of Byzantia’s Hagia Sophia from Christianity to Islam”

  1. Iqbal Ganie says:

    Well researched and objective Keep it up and continue with your excellent contributions