It has had multiple uses: first as a church, then converted to a mosque and now is a museum. Whatever its function, one thing is certain: the Hagia Sophia is impressive.
We tend to forget that Turkey, which is today 98 per cent or so Muslim, was once the centre of the Christian church, and even today is the spiritual home of the various Orthodox churches. The Hagia Sophia, which probably tops most people’s “must see” lists when they visit Istanbul, was constructed in 531 (over the remains of a previous church) and served as a place of Christian worship until 1453. It is a structure with not only great architectural beauty but an impressive history. This was the seat of Christianity after the fall of Rome.
The richness of the Hagia Sophia comes from its time as a church, not its years as a mosque. (Yes there was considerable fuss when the Turkish government, back in 1931, decided to turn it into a museum. That secularizing mindset appears to be on the wane.) The Muslims, in accordance with their beliefs, plastered over the great religious art that covered the walls. Some of those Christian frescoes have now been uncovered, after being hidden for centuries.
I skipped the lineup to get in. I had purchased an Istanbul Museum Pass, more for convenience than cost, though there are savings if you plan on taking in more than a couple of the sites. The biggest advantage to having the time-limited pass is that you get to jump the queue and go straight into the museums. When time is at a premium during a short stay that is a major selling point as the popular sites all have long lineups.
The church (oops, did I just call it that? I mean museum.) Is impressive both inside and out (it was the largest cathedral in the world for a millennium). From the exterior you can see that it is large, but you don’t get the full impact until you see the interior. There you realize that the closest comparison in terms of impact is probably St. Peter’s in Rome.
There is a lot of history in this building, reflecting both the triumphs and the sorrows of the Christian journey.
I will admit that seeing a church turned into a mosque feels a little depressing to me. And it is not the idea of a mosque that makes me sad – I feel the same way when I see a church that has been turned into a community centre, a hair salon or housing. When churches are turned to other uses they are no longer fulfilling their mandate. In my experience it is rare that the people of God have outgrown those buildings and gone elsewhere; it is more common that, for a multitude of reasons, the Christian community has dwindled and the people of God are no longer able to maintain what they once had.
That being said, I still think the future of the Christian church looks bright – perhaps even in a place like Turkey where Christians have become so small a minority as to be practically non-existent. So many people have counted the church out over the centuries, dismissing it is a relic of times past. Yet today there are more Christians than ever before – 32% of the world’s population. The church continues to grow, and the final chapter is a long way from being written.