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Hagia Sophia: A Rich and Holy History
By Virginia Ann Froehle, R.S.M.
This awe-inspiring Istanbul landmark, now a museum, has been important to Christians and Muslims for centuries.

Q U I C K S C A N

How It Was Built
Persistent Pilgrims
A Turbulent History
Changing Faces
From Church to Mosque
From Mosque to Museum
Other Sites of Christian Interest in Turkey

PHOTO BY VIRGINIA ANN FROEHLE, R.S.M.

HAGIA SOPHIA is one of the four largest domed buildings in the world and it radiated Catholic celebration for 900 years. Yet most American Catholics were unaware of its existence until Pope Benedict XVI visited it on November 30, 2006.

During the pope’s visit to Turkey, newscasters referred to the building by its Turkish name, Ayasofya. Others use its Greek title, Hagia Sophia. The original Latin name is Sancta Sophia. Sancta and Hagia both mean “holy.” Sophia is the biblical name (in Greek) for “wisdom.” Hagia Sophia, also called the Holy Wisdom of Christ in God, was built in sixth-century Constantinople.

In its first few centuries of existence, however, people regularly called this 16-story-high marvel “The Big Church.” No traveler could miss it: For 900 years, it stood as the largest church on earth.

But Hagia Sophia—a finalist in the recent “New 7 Wonders of the World”—is famous not simply for its size. It breathes an awareness of Spirit. A young Muslim carpet salesman says with enthusiasm, “This place just makes me feel happy inside. The pictures of Mother Mary give me”—he pauses to think—“a sense of humanity.”

How It Was Built

In 306 A.D., Constantine I declared himself emperor of the Roman Empire and set up an Eastern Byzantine branch of it. He built his political capital in Asia Minor (now Turkey) on the banks of the Bosphorus River, which forms the boundary between Asia and Europe. Originally called Byzantium, the site was renamed by Constantine after himself: Constantinople.

In 313 A.D., Constantine’s Edict of Milan proclaimed freedom of religion. Christians who had suffered discrimination could now worship openly. They could also build churches.

Constantine ordered the building of Hagia Sophia, along with several other Christian churches, in his new capital. Fifty years later, however, fire destroyed it. Rioters destroyed its replacement a century later.

In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian I gave orders to rebuild Hagia Sophia, only to do so in grandeur this time. Architects and builders raised a dome of 102 feet across. Justinian called together the greatest artists to create paintings, carvings and mosaics; he ordered marble columns of various hues to be brought from well-known sites.

At the dedication, Justinian proclaimed, “Solomon, I have surpassed you.”

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Persistent Pilgrims

In the tradition of pious Catholic stories of saints and miracles, the sixth-century citizens of Constantinople cultivated one of their own. It began when the architects and builders invited Justinian to inspect the structure which they had almost finished. Although he felt quite ill that day, he came to the church and walked around.

Tiring quickly, Justinian leaned against one of the marble pillars. When he straightened up and walked away, he felt much better, remarking that he thought he had been healed.

Workers spread the story. Townspeople flocked to the pillar to pray for healing, and the column grew as a pilgrimage place for locals and visitors. Since more people were lining up at the pillar than going to Mass, the priests encased the pillar with a metal covering.

Persistent pilgrims, however, placed their hands on the covering and, over the centuries, rubbed a hole into it. Most who visit Hagia Sophia today still honor the story by placing their hands on the spot.

A Turbulent History

If the builders had taken more than five years to build it, the church might not have needed such extensive repair only 50 years later when several earthquakes damaged the dome. New workers had to reinforce the brick walls thoroughly.

Other earthquakes throughout the years meant more repairs. In 989, workers replaced the great dome yet again.

Hagia Sophia carries the marks and scars not only of earthquakes and weathering for over 1,500 years, but also of the celebrations and the turbulent history of the city. Officials crowned emperors, celebrated victories in battle and held Church councils within it. Criminals raced into its sanctuary for asylum. Later, Crusaders assaulted it and stole its treasures.

It also endured the Iconoclastic Period (726-842 A.D.) when the Church forbade all images. Mosaics were chipped away and replaced by crosses. Paintings were blocked out with more paint. Not until 116 years later could artists begin again to paint biblical and royal characters and to create new mosaics. Art critics today consider these mosaics to be some of the best in the world.

Stephen from Canada stands quietly in the vestibule under the mosaic icon of Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of All). “The aliveness of the mosaics is what most impresses me,” he comments.

Alexey Sorokin is profoundly aware of the Byzantine flavor of the art. He grew up steeped in the Byzantine culture of the Kuban region of Russia on the Black Sea coast. “It makes me wish that the Byzantine rule had endured and continued to develop,” he says.

Sorokin is highly impressed with the expertise and technical skills, as well as the vision, of the sixth-century architects and builders. “I don’t think that we would be able to sustain such a project today,” he speculates.

Of great significance is Hagia Sophia’s place in the Great Schism—the splitting of the Eastern (Orthodox) branch from the Western (Roman) foundation in 1054. The archbishop of Constantinople, who is presently called the Patriarch of Constantinople, became the head of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Hagia Sophia became its seat and symbol. It was in the spirit of reconciliation and ecumenism that Pope Benedict XVI flew to Turkey to meet with the patriarch in the fall of 2006.

Changing Faces

But the most destructive force in Hagia Sophia’s history was the Latin invasion of Constantinople. More than 150 years after the East-West Schism, the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade—proclaiming the Easterners to be apostates—captured the city in 1204 and looted the church of its treasures, leaving no gold behind.

They sent relics in valuable casings to churches in the West, where they are now displayed in European museums. For 57 years, the Crusaders took charge of the city and designated Hagia Sophia a Roman Catholic cathedral.

When the Byzantines/Orthodox recaptured the city, they returned the cathedral to its prominence among Orthodox places of worship. Financially depleted, however, the Orthodox could not support it. By the early 1400s, it had fallen into ruin.

Fifty years later, in 1453, the Ottoman tribes triumphed over other Turkish tribes and marched into Constantinople to become the rulers of Turkey (and other conquered territories) until World War I.

The sultan—the leader of the Muslim Ottomans—built a palace next to Hagia Sophia and then converted the church into a mosque. Since the sultan was generally tolerant of other religions, historians speculate on his reasons for claiming the great Orthodox Catholic Church for Islam. Some believe that he just liked the convenience of praying five times a day in a building right next door to him.

Although the name Istanbul did not become the official name of the city until the early 20th century, people began calling it that at the time of the Ottoman rule. Istanbul means “Go down to the city.”

From Church to Mosque

The Muslims turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque by making three major changes:

1) Because Islam forbids images, they covered all of the mosaics and paintings, often lettering quotations from the Quran on the material covering them.

The coverings, however, were of dried hay and plaster which not only let the paintings underneath breathe but also kept the mosaics intact. Some say that the Turks did this in consideration for the art. Others say that Orthodox Christians got in on the job and used this method to preserve the art they loved.

2) Muslims added minarets—towers that accompany a mosque around the outside of the building. Some minarets have balconies where a leader calls Muslims to prayer five times a day.

3) They added a mihrab on the inside—a space which would resemble a side altar to Roman Catholics. Muslims know that, when they bow to a mihrab from any place in any mosque, they are bowing toward Mecca.

The Muslim Turks began to restore the dilapidated building immediately and cared for it well throughout the Ottoman reign. They worshiped in it for over 450 years. The sheer size of the building—covered with intricate carvings, paintings, calligraphy and mosaics—calls for constant repair.

Michael, an interior designer from Montreal, dreamed for a long time of seeing Hagia Sophia. “But I was disappointed to see a quarter of the dome and interior below it covered in scaffolding,” he says. Michael relished the many mosaics and paintings viewed individually.

From Mosque to Museum

Hagia Sophia morphed yet again: It had gone from being a church to a mosque and then to a museum.

In 1923, the hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk drove foreign countries out of Turkey and established a secular—not Islamic—parliamentary republic. The Orthodox wanted their church returned to them. Muslims wanted to keep it as their mosque. Atatürk, however, decreed it to become a museum that would be open to everyone. And so it is.

Its perpetual renovation and repairs are supported by the government. Many of the mosaics and paintings have been cleared of their coverings. Magnificent Arabic calligraphy highlights some of the walls.

Minnesota resident Karen Wright takes a break from reading her guidebook. “I wish I could be transported back to a time when the museum was either a church or a mosque,” she says. “That would give me a truer feeling for the building’s central purpose and spirit.”

Karen had come to Hagia Sophia because her father had told her that it was one of the most important places he had ever been. Like other tourists, she finds the structure and art impressive, but wants a deeper spiritual experience. Karen finds it difficult because of the mix of religious art and symbols.

Pilgrim Kelly Kollman, sitting on the front steps near Wright, especially likes “the way the building reflects two different religious traditions at the same time.” She says, “I’m also impressed that the Ottomans kept so much of the Christian art.”

Along with the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, the ruins of Ephesus and Troy, and the Grand Bazaar (a covered market with, some say, 4,000 shops), Hagia Sophia is one place that visitors to Turkey have on their “must-see” list.

Pilgrims would be wise to step into the center of the floor and turn their backs to any scaffolding. Imagine what it would have been like to be a sixth-century farmer coming to Constantinople to sell produce, to be drawn in wonder to the size and curves of “The Big Church”!

Pilgrims are embraced by sweeping arches, light-filled stained glass, intricate mosaics and marble columns of many colors. An ethereal afternoon light glows, descending from the 24 windows circling the bottom of the dome. It reminds all visitors of the Spirit that has filled this holy place which has sheltered seekers and praying people for almost 1,500 years.

 

Other Sites of Christian Interest in Turkey

Besides Hagia Sophia, Turkey has other places that might interest Christians because of their association with St. Paul or with the early Church.

Ephesus: Walk the same marble streets that Paul the Apostle once walked. Pilgrims can also visit the house which is believed to rest on the same foundation stones as the one in which Mary lived. Tombs are believed to be those of the Apostles John and Philip.

Tarsus: Visitors can walk the seacoast city where Paul was born.

Cappadocia: Enter and observe many caves which housed monks and hermits from the fourth to the 19th centuries.

Istanbul and the Surrounding Areas: Nine Church councils were held here between 300 and 1054 A.D., although visitors may not be able to find all the places. Hagia Sophia is one of them.

Visit the mosque, tomb and museum of Rumi (Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi). While not a Christian site, it may enhance interfaith connections with Islam. Rumi was a 13th-century poet and mystic who was a Sufi—a member of the mystical branch of Islam. His writings hold parallels with Christian mystics, especially John of the Cross.

The United Nations named 2007 as “The Year of Rumi.”

 

Virginia Ann Froehle, R.S.M., is a freelance writer, spiritual director and retreat leader. This Sister of Mercy is the author of the best-selling Loving Yourself More: 101 Meditations for Women and ’Tis a Gift to Be Free (Ave Maria Press). She is a graduate of Marquette University.


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