History & Culture

Hagia Sophia: The story of a World Heritage Site

Hagia Sophia has hosted over 6.5 million visitors in the last two years it has been opened as a mosque.

Hagia Sophia has hosted over 6.5 million visitors in the last two years it has been opened as a mosque. | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

On my visit to Hagia Sophia some years ago on a nippy day in early spring, the majestic trees starkly bare, there were serpentine queues of people of diverse faiths and nationalities waiting patiently to get in. And this was when it was still a museum.

However, on Friday July 10, 2020, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with a stroke of his pen, turned the secular clock back on his country’s most famous architectural icon. He signed the official decree to reconvert the World heritage Site in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque. In the last two years since it was opened as a mosque, the monument has hosted over 6.5 million visitors, the state news agency  Anadolu quoted the the Istanbul Deputy Mufti as saying.

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Architecture has always been employed for religious, political and symbolic messaging. With palimpsests of history, socio-religious and political churns, new identities raise claims over great edifices.

In its nearly 1,500 year of existence, Hagia Sophia has had many identities: a cathedral, a mosque, a museum, and now it is back to being a mosque. Its architectural splendour and historicity have made it a cherished monument, revered both by Muslims and Christians.

Christian iconography on the mosque’s walls from when it served as a cathedral.

Christian iconography on the mosque’s walls from when it served as a cathedral. | Photo Credit: Rajnish Wattas

Originally built as a cathedral by the Roman emperor Justinian I in 537 AD, it stands as the greatest example of Byzantine architecture in the world. Before Justinian’s rule, Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and shifted his capital from Rome to Constantinople (present day Istanbul). The change was both for reasons of defence and better accessibility to the trade routes along the river Bosphorus. The new capital flourished, and when Hagia Sophia was built, Justinian is claimed to have said, “Solomon, I have outdone thee,” referring to the legendary monarch and builder of Israel.

However, with the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, Hagia Sophia, which remained a cathedral for nearly a millennium, was converted into a mosque. And the Sultan, three days after taking control of the city, held his first Friday prayers here.

Crescendo of cupolas

The majestic monument, with its huge dome and slender, sky-soaring minarets, sketches a mystic silhouette along the Bosphorus river that slices through Istanbul. A number of smaller surrounding cupolas rise in a crescendo, culminating in the grand dome that crowns the large 240 ft x 270 ft nave below and rises 180 ft above the ground. Four pencil-like sharp-edged minarets were added later during the Ottoman Empire to give it the semblance of a mosque.

Hagia Sophia’s dome has evoked keen interest among art historians, architects and engineers because of its size and shape. It remained the largest dome in the world until Saint Peter’s Basilica was built in 1626 in Rome.

Hagia Sophia, which remained a cathedral for nearly a millennium, was converted into a mosque in 1453.

Hagia Sophia, which remained a cathedral for nearly a millennium, was converted into a mosque in 1453. | Photo Credit: Rajnish Wattas

The gigantic size of Hagia Sophia owes to an ingenious technique of resting it on four large columns, and by using pendentives (triangular segments of a sphere). Built in a hurry on the orders of the emperor, the massive dome initially gave in and large brick buttresses had to be added to support the walls.

In India, the biggest dome built in historical times was the Gol Gumbaz, tomb of king Muhammad Adil Shah in Bijapur, completed in 1657. It follows an Indo-Islamic architectural style and also uses pendentives to support the dome. In fact, the innovation of arches, vaults and domes came to India with Islamic builders. The emphasis was more on sculptural adornments on the outside, seen in the exquisite temples of India, than on the interiors.

Common heritage

In 1934, with the end of the Ottoman Empire and evolution of Turkey into a secular Republic, Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by its rulers. And in 1985, it was bestowed the UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The interior of Hagia Sophia  is a vast space with an ambience of serenity. Shafts of light from fenestrations streak in, bouncing off the gold mosaics and dissolving the walls into ethereal lightness. The huge nave, with two floors of galleries, is richly decorated. A ramp was supposedly necessary to allow the emperor to gallop right up to the upper galleries on horseback.

Several mosaics, calligraphic inscriptions and roundels adorn the ceilings and walls. Notable are the murals with Christian themes along the galleries surrounding the nave. One of the most well-known mosaics is on the apse of the church showing a 13-ft-tall Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.

A mosaic showing the 13-ft-tall Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in the monument.

A mosaic showing the 13-ft-tall Virgin Mary with baby Jesus in the monument. | Photo Credit: Rajnish Wattas

One of the major concerns of the Christian world about converting it into a mosque was over the fate of its decorations: especially the one depicting the Holy Family and portraits of Christian emperors along the upper galleries. The UNESCO authorities too echoed concerns that modifications could threaten its future heritage status.

Hopefully, the assurances of the Turkish President, “Hagia Sophia, the common heritage of humanity, will go forward to embrace everyone with its new status in a much more sincere and much more unique way’’ will be adhered to.

The writer is the former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture and an author-critic.


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Printable version | Jul 31, 2022 3:59:19 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/hagia-sophia-the-story-of-a-world-heritage-site/article65681227.ece