Christian and Islamic art, censorship, and religious and cultural inclusivity.
Stepping inside Hagia Sophia is like stepping inside history.
Meaning “Holy Wisdom,” the 1,500-year-old Byzantine structure whispers secrets of antiquity. Standing beneath this massive dome, I am confronted by the power of centuries of religiosity and artistic expression.
Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum, and its bottom floor is lined with modern Islamic art. Framing the four apses above, gold Qur’anic calligraphy—the largest ever written—is painted on black, wooden circles. They add to the overall grandeur of the vaulted ceilings, drawing the seasoned upward in awe. They are the eyes of Hagia Sophia’s more recent history, but they are not the eyes of its more distant past.
Beneath these black circles, with their gold pupils, is an ornate mosaic. By the portal to Mecca, emerging after centuries of being kept in the dark, is the Theotokos, Mother of God. The Byzantine icon is holding Jesus, and beside the pair is the Archangel Michael with a staff and crystal globe. But, though they are visible for me this day, they were only unearthed from behind sheets of plaster within the last century.
The story dates back to the earliest days of Hagia Sophia. In 537 CE, the modern structure was built after having been burned down two times during feuds and revolts. The Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople was the crown jewel of Byzantium for nearly 1,000 years. But then the course of history changed. In 1453 CE, Constantinople fell at the hands of the Ottomans.
What happened in the wake of this conquest, and what of Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine art inside?
The moment Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror stepped into the 2,000-year-old city, history changed forever. The Byzantine Empire was defeated by the Ottoman Empire. Constantinople became Istanbul, and Hagia Sophia turned from a cathedral to a mosque. In one fell swoop, its heritage changed and, as soon as the workers were able to locate the plaster, the mosaics of Mary, Jesus, John the Baptist, and the Archangels were concealed.
But what is the takeaway from this event? What can be learned?
Shortly after the Republic of Turkey was founded, in 1923 CE, the first President of the new country turned Hagia Sophia into a museum. After centuries as a religious site, President Atatürk revealed the hidden art. And after nearly 500 years of being kept in the dark, the company of angels and saints was unearthed. Finally, in 1935 CE, Hagia Sophia saw its final conversion, from a house of God to a house of art.
Standing beneath these uncovered relics, I feel a profound sense of belonging. It is not to either religion at this moment, but to the arts and history of humanity. In an alcove, a mosaic of Jesus with his hand held in the air symbolizes the Last Judgement. I look out an open window and see the Blue Mosque not far away. Muslims, too, believe in this last hour, when all of God’s children will be judged for their conduct on earth. But I’m not in the museum to judge either religion myself, or to determine who’s right or wrong in the course of history. I’m here only to appreciate each for what it has to offer. That is why I’ve come to the Middle East.
Standing beneath these fantastic pieces of antiquity, I see what the world can be. I see the possibility for an enlightened existence and a cultural society, one held together by art and creativity. For nearly 1,500 years Hagia Sophia has stood its ground. Emperors and sultans were born and died. Patriarchs and imams appeared and disappeared like the wind. But, through it all, Hagia Sophia remained a testament to itself.
Though the religious icons were covered, the building considered to have “changed the history of architecture” was not demolished. Its beauty, formed by men whose only wish was for their expression to be shared with the world, is accessible to everyone, and to me, a Christian from a distant land.
For this reason, Hagia Sophia is a powerful place. It’s not like the Blue Mosque, or the Wailing Wall, or the Dome of the Rock, or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Because, unlike these traditional holy places, the portal to the “Wisdom of God” is open to all. But let me make myself clear, I am not a secularist.
What I imagine is a world where the religions, like the visitors to the museum, stand side by side in solidarity and peace. I imagine a world where the calligraphy of one religion can be beside the saints of another, and people are inspired by their history and their beauty, rather than disgusted by their presence. I believe in freedom of expression and inclusivity, and I hope that anyone who enters Hagia Sophia might see for themselves the reasons why.
Author: Hunter J.W. Joslin
Editor: Travis May
Photos: Featured Image: Flickr/Brian Suda, Images in article are Author’s Own