A CHURCH, A MOSQUE AND FINALLY A MUSEUM: THE NEARLY 1,500-YEAR-OLD STORY OF THE HAGIA SOPHIA
Built by the Byzantines as a church, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. It was later converted into a museum after the declaration of the Turkish Republic. Its situation has always being controversial during the Republican periodand there have been different initiativestaken by politicians to change its status
Turkish poet Yahya Kemal once said on March 30, 1922, "I have discovered a truth: This state has two moral foundations: The adhan (the call for prayer for Muslims) that Mehmed the Conquer ordered to call out on the minaret of Hagia Sophia and is still being recited; the Quran that Sultan Selim I ordered to recite in Hırka-i Saadet Dairesi (the Shine of the Sacred Relics) in the Topkapı Palace and is still being recited."
Hagia Sophia, one of the symbols of Istanbul, was built from wood by Roman Emperor Constantine in 360; however, it was partially burnt down during an uprising that occurred in 404. Emperor Theodosius later restored the building in 415. When the building was burnt down once again during the Nika Riots in 532, Emperor Justinian I had it rebuilt with stone. After five years of construction, the Hagia Sophia was once again reopened to worship in 537, making the present building the third incarnation of the Hagia Sophia. "Hagia Sophia" means "Holy Wisdom," which is one of the characteristics of Jesus Christ.
Rumor has it that Justinian I told people about a saint who visited him in his dream and showed him the picture of Hagia Sophia on a silver plate. When the architect also said he dreamt the same dream, the construction of the building began right away upon this spiritual sign. However, the name Hagia Sophia was not only given to the magnificent building in Istanbul. There are several places of worship with that name in many cities ruled by the Byzantine Empire; but none of them are as glorious or famous as the one in Istanbul. During the time of the Byzantine Empire, all ceremonies and religious meetings were held in Hagia Sophia. Its dome had collapsed several times throughout history and was later rebuilt with lighter material. It became renowned considering that it was the biggest dome in the world. Those who saw this brilliant place of worship, which had a mighty lighting and acoustics, could not hide their astonishment. The Russian delegates who visited Hagia Sophia in the 11th century said they felt like they were in the sky.
After the Latin invasion in the 13th century, Hagia Sophia was in ruins. The tombs of the commander of the Latin invasion, and Venetian Enrico Dandolo (the 42nd Doge of Venice), who died in 1205, are inside the Hagia Sophia.
Before the Turkish conquest of Istanbul in 1453, the Byzantine emperor requested help from Ottoman Sultan Murad II when the dome of Hagia Sophia cracked. An architect named Ali Najjar was sent from Edirne and the building was saved. The architect reported back to the Ottoman sultan upon his return and said, "I prepared the locations of the minarets." This sentence points out to the belief that Muslims would conquer Istanbul one day and Hagia Sophia would be converted into a mosque. When the Turks besieged Istanbul, the Byzantine people took shelter in Hagia Sophia, which had lost all of its previous glory. They prayed and waited for a miracle from The Virgin Mary, the patroness of the Istanbul. However the Holy Virgin was on the Turks' side. When Mehmed II conquered the city, he climbed on the dome of the ravaged Hagia Sophia and read the well-known couplet from Saadi Shirazi, Persian poet: "The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab / The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars."
All places of worship taken by war are the property of the ruler, according to the Islamic law. Additionally, the Ottomans converted the biggest place of worship in the city into a mosque, when they conquer a city, as it was a religious duty to perform Friday worship, and preferred to leave the other places of worship as they were. After the Hagia Sophia Church was converted into a mosque on June 1, 1453, it was called Hagia Sophia Mosque or Fetih (Conquest) Mosque. Sultan Mehmed II restored the building and built a minaret. After him, his son Sultan Bayezid II built another one and his grandson Sultan Selim II built two more minarets, which is the reason why all the minarets are different from each other. Sultan Selim II greatly contributed to the development of the Hagia Sophia, and restored it thoroughly in 1574. Selim II and four other sultans, who were his descendants, are buried on the courtyard of Hagia Sophia Mosque, the most elegant examples of Ottoman mausoleum art.
Almost all sultans after Selim II served for the mosque. From sacred wall writings to mosaics, many elegant art works were added to the mosque along with revenue generating foundation works. The library and şadırvan (fountain which is used for ritual ablutions ) built by Sultan Mahmud I are important. Lastly, Sultan Abdülmecid had architect Fossati renovate the building thoroughly in 1847 and made some new additions.
Hagia Sophia is a Byzantine-era building; however, it is greatly in Ottomans' debt as it still stands.Since Byzantine times, many religious stories and legends had been told about Hagia Sophia, and the Turks saw a different holiness in it. In this regard, it is correct to consider Hagia Sophia as an Ottoman building instead of Byzantine. Sultans and men of state frequently performed their prayers in this mosque, which is located near Topkapı Palace. Especially, the tarawih prayer onLaylat al-Qadr, the 27th night of Ramadan month, with Sultan's attendance was magnificent. Also, Hagia Sophia was frequently chosen for the religious ceremonies held on Mawlid, which is the birthday of Prophet Muhammad. These ceremonies were very spiritual and attended by the people of the city, at which desserts were served to everyone. The Ottomans regarded Hagia Sophia as the symbol of sovereignty over Istanbul. After the allies' invaded Istanbul in 1918, some of the Greek people wanted to convert Hagia Sophia into a church by ringing a bell on the top of the building. Sultan Vahideddin deployed 700 private soldiers, which were left for his own protection, around Hagia Sophia and ordered them to shoot anyone who tried to ring a bell on top of the mosque. He also had the building surrounded with dynamite, as a last resort. Due to his actions, he managed to prolong the mosque's life a little longer.
Evliya Çelebi who was a 17th century Ottoman historian and traveler said the Hagia Sophia has 361 doors and 100 of them are talismanic. He also mentioned a door that cannot be seen by anyone. The yellow sarcophagus, which is placed on top of the main entrance in the middle of the mosque, is believed to belong to Queen Sophia and is said to cause earthquakes if it is touched. The people of the Byzantine Empire believed that the priest who conducted the final prayer while the city was under siege, disappeared by entering the altar wall, and would continue the ceremony once they re-took the city from the Turks.
It is said that the wings of the kiblah door were made from the wood of Prophet Noah's ship. Back in the days, merchants did not set sail before touching this door and praying in front of it. Moreover, it is also believed that the marble stone located in the southern tunnels of Hagia Sophia, is the cradle of Jesus Christ. Women placed their sick and new born children on this marble stone and asked God to heal them. Those who suffer from shortness of breath are believed to recover if they drink water from the well inside of Hagia Sophia, three times on an empty stomach.
In the Republican Era
In 1931, during the time of the İsmet İnönü government, archaeologist Thomas Whittemore applied to the Kemalist government asking permission to renovate the mosaics in Hagia Sophia Mosque on behalf of the American Byzantine Institute.
John D. Rockefeller's partner, Charles R. Crane, was the name behind the Byzantine Institute. He got a promise out of then-President, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whom he supported during the Turkish War of Independence about the future of Hagia Sophia.
The idea for a museum came up during that time. Atatürk founded a commission composed of nine people, one of which was German. Everyone except Professor Eckhard Unger advised that the mosque should be closed for prayer. However, Eckhard believed that the mosque would be better fended if it was used as a place of worship. On Nov. 24, 1934, the council of ministers made a decision that some parts of Hagia Sophia which were not used for prayer, would be converted into a museum, on the grounds that there was not enough money and also it would make "The entire Eastern world happy." Thus, Hagia Sophia opened its doors as a museum on Feb. 1, 1935 after serving as a church for 11 centuries, and a mosque for five centuries.
The decree did not state anything about closing the mosque for prayer. However, the text of the proposal that was sent to the prime ministry, by then-Minister of Education Abidin Özmen, who was in charge of the historical artifacts, reveals the real intention; He said, "If Hagia Sophia is converted into a museum, the touristic value of Istanbul will double. Those who perform their prayers in Hagia Sophia can easily perform their religious duties in many other big or small mosques nearby." During these times, Hagia Sophia was not the only mosque that was closed to prayers. In the new era, hundreds of mosques were closed or used for other purposes, demolished, or their lands were sold.
When the mosque was closed, the antique carpets in it were cut and distributed to different placesand the candlesticks were taken to the foundry to be melted down. As the plates were very large in size, they could not be taken out, so they were put into the storage rooms. These plates were hung once more by the Democrat Party (DP) government when Turkey democratized again after the 1950s. Once, the mosque was converted into a museum, the Hagia Sophia Madrasah, which was the first Ottoman university in Istanbul, was also closed. İbrahim Hakkı Konyalı, journalist and cultural historian told the story as such: "While I was writing for Tan, [a former daily newspaper], in 1934, the architect of the archaeology museum Kemal Altan showed up. He said in tears, 'upon the directions coming from Ankara, we went down deep under the two minarets of Small Hagia Sophia Mosque. Tonight, we will bring down the four minarets of Hagia Sophia Mosque. So, I had him write a report stating that 'The minarets support the dome; if they are taken down, the Hagia Sophia will collapse.' After it was published, they decided not to tear down the historical minarets."
During the time of Byzantine Iconoclasm (icon destruction), which was a movement where people believed paintings were illicit between 726 and 842, all of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia were scraped off. The mosaics, which were made later, were covered with plaster following the conquest of Istanbul, while others were scraped off over time. Most of the mosaics that remained fell off in the 1894 earthquake. Hagia Sophia was surrounded with a police lineup for days before it was converted into a museum, and many people reached the conclusion that the mosaics of the building were made just to create an excuse for converting it into a museum. Nevertheless, the mosque would be preserved, by building a wooden mezzanine between the ground and the mosaics, allowing tourists to visit it just like they visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Performing prayer in a place where there are pictures of living beings is a personal matter for Muslims.
Following the conversion of Hagia Sophia, many claims have been made, stating that there is no such cabinet decree indicating the conversion of Hagia Sophia, and it was made up by then-Minister of Education Hasan Âli Yüceli; the signature of Atatürk on the decree was a fake one, and the decree was not published in the official journal, which also lacked a rotation number. Even if the decree was real, it was told that the decree was against obligation and foundation laws in the constitution. Law no. 6.570 states that places of worship cannot be used for other purposes. However, revolution had its own law. Just like many other things done during the single party rule, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum according to the laws of the revolution.
An alliance agreement between the Balkan states was in question in the early 1930s. Regarding the agreement called "The Balkan Pact," "If we convert Hagia Sophia into a museum, it would be a great gesture to Greece," said Atatürk to Celal Bayar. Athens was already willing to sign the agreement; however, they made a big fuss about a compromise. After 1950s, when the Democrat Party came into power, they thought about re-opening Hagia Sophia for prayer. Nongovernmental organizations and nationalist writers supported this idea. Around that time, Ahmet Emin Yalman, a writer for a newspaper said, "The heads of those who want to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque should be crushed." He was later shot by a young man named Hüseyin Üzmez in Malatya in 1952. The government did not want to offend Greece because of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and had to take a step back on this matter.
When Pope Paul VI wanted to kneel down and pray in Hagia Sophia during his visit in 1967, then-Minister of Foreign Affairs İhsan Sabri Çağlayangil said, "This place is neither a mosque nor a church but a museum. No religious ceremony can be held in here," and tried to prevent him. Built by Sultan Abdülmecid, the Sultan's Lodge where sultans rested when coming to the mosque, was opened to prayers on Aug. 8, 1980 by the Justice Party (AP). The adhan had begun to be recited once again in Hagia Sophia but after the Sept. 12 military coup, everything went back to how it used to be. In 1992, Prime Minister Yıldırım Akbulut of the Motherland Party (ANAP) opened the Sultan's Lodge to prayer once again. When he promised to open the entire Hagia Sophia for prayer, everything turned upside down. Nobody, even the former National Salvation Party (MSP), which adopted religious mottos, was able to open Hagia Sophia, whose deed is registered to Sultan Fatih Foundation, for prayer. It is rumored that Abdülhakîm Arvâsî, who lectured on Hagia Sophia for years said, "I wish Hagia Sophia was demolished so that Muslims can avoid this shame."
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