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
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:
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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”
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
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.