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Divine Wisdom

January 8, 2014 | by

Hagia Sophia Schezar Flickr

Photo: Schezar, via Flickr

On May 28, 1453, the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI entered Hagia Sophia, “the church of the divine wisdom,” to pray. Constantinople was under siege, and the fate of the great basilica was unclear. The emperor prayed there before returning to the city walls, where he coordinated the defense effort against the army of Mehmed II, who would be christened conqueror by day’s end.

As the two armies struggled to outmaneuver each other, those caught inside Hagia Sophia waited anxiously, fearful of what might happen if the capital of Greek Orthodoxy fell into Muslim hands. Emperor Justinian had commissioned the church in 532 A.D.; planned by the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and the physicist Isidore of Miletus, and built by more than ten thousand laborers, it was intended to symbolize the magnificence of Christianity and become the seat of the Orthodox patriarch. Twenty years after its completion, two major earthquakes shook Hagia Sophia and destroyed its eastern arch. After extensive renovation, it reopened in 562 A.D. to the delight of Justinian, who, three years before his death, saw his great church survive one of nature’s worst calamities.

On May 29, 1453, Mehmed II and his army entered the city, immediately marching on Hagia Sophia. In their book Strolling Through Istanbul, John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd describe how Mehmed “dismounted at the door of the church and bent down to take a handful of earth, which he then sprinkled over his turban as an act of humility before God.”

In the five centuries following that symbolic act, the greatest religious building of the Ottoman Empire continued to shine—but this time, the glory belonged to Islam. Hagia Sophia became an imperial mosque; it came to boast four minarets (these also serve an architectural purpose, protecting the building against collapsing onto itself) and additional türbes (Islamic mausoleums).

Centuries later, in 1935, its role changed again. Twelve years after the foundation of the Turkish republic, President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk signed a decision that turned Hagia Sophia into a secular museum. According to the Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk’s decision not only turned Hagia Sophia into “an artifact of the past” but rendered it “a site of memory instead of … a symbol of lived religious experience.” In the decades to come, the secularized building would serve as Istanbul’s main tourist attraction; in 2012 alone it attracted around three and a half million visitors.

Today, the building is on the brink of another transformation; 2014 may be remembered as the year that decided Hagia Sophia’s fate. Last month, Yusuf Halaçoğlu, a parliamentarian from the nationalist MHP party, filed a proposal founded on a curious historical argument that brings to mind the books of Dan Brown and Umberto Eco. According to Halaçoğlu, the 1935 decree that transformed Hagia Sophia into a museum was forged. Atatürk, he argued, had never wanted the building to be a museum, and thanks to a legal loophole, the current parliament could easily transform the museum back into a mosque.

Was it conceivable that a forgery could be at the heart of arguably the most significant decision in Turkey’s early republican history? Halaçoğlu’s argument hinged on Atatürk’s name. Before the parliament had christened him Atatürk (“the father of Turks”) on November 27, 1934, he’d been known simply as Mustafa Kemal. Only after the Turkish parliament retitled him did he start to sign documents under the new name. But the motion that desanctified Hagia Sophia was passed on November 24, and it was signed “K. Atatürk”—three days too soon, to Halaçoğlu’s mind.

Further complicating matters, the decree’s issue number was 1589, while another decree issued two days earlier was numbered 1606. Halaçoğlu also pointed out that the decree was never published in the Official Gazette (Resmi Gazete) of the Republic, which may signal that the decree had been added to the presidential archive at a later date.

To prove his theory, Halaçoğlu brought the decree document and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s signature to the Police Headquarters of Turkey and asked experts to compare the two; there does indeed seem to be a difference between them. The experts said as much, but not everyone was convinced—intellectuals and historians began to weigh in. In Yeni Akit, Turkey’s most conservative newspaper, well known for its opposition to republican reforms, Faruk Köse argued that the forgery theory was an absurd attempt to distance Atatürk from the cultural revolutions of early twentieth century. A forgery was impossible, Köse said. The mosque was turned into a museum in 1935 and opened its doors on February 1 of that year; since Atatürk died on November 10, 1938, how on earth could he not have known about the transformation of the greatest mosque of Islam into a museum? As for the experts’ verdict about the difference in signatures, Köse argued that it was natural for a person using a new signature for the first time to make slight alterations to it later. He also claimed that Atatürk would’ve executed anyone who attempted to forge his signature—so absolute was his authority.

* * *

One morning not long ago, I took a tram to Hagia Sophia with my girlfriend. I wanted to get at the heart of the controversy. The entrance fee is twenty-five liras, which visitors are allowed to pay only after standing in a very long queue where guides of varying degrees of competence vie for attention.

We entered the museum through the impressive Imperial Door, which only the emperors could use in the Byzantine era. Once inside, the first thing that struck us was the coldness of the place—the chill almost overshadowed the beauty of the grand dome, which is 108 feet in diameter, rising to 180 feet above the floor. Having watched a National Geographic documentary about its construction the night before, we had our doubts about the building’s safety.

More than anything else, the interior of the museum resembles an endless construction site. The library in the south aisle, commissioned by Sultan Mahmud in the eighteenth century, is currently being renovated, and a huge scaffold stands at the center with warning signs placed on columns around it. My girlfriend remembered having visited in 2010—she said the scaffolding had been removed then. I found that difficult to believe, but she said she could prove it with pictures.

Before climbing upstairs, we looked at the circular calligraphy panels that hang from the piers. Painted by Kazasker Mustafa Izzet Efendi, they contain the names of Allah, the prophet Muhammad, his four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali), and Muhammad’s grandchildren Hussein and Hassan. They stand in striking contrast with the Christian imagery of the mosaics: the cohabitation of Islamic words and Christian images is a beautiful thing to behold.

There are more than a hundred columns in the building, but none is more interesting than the so-called sweating column on the northern corner. Brought from the Temple of Artemis, the column has a huge hole in its center where visitors can insert their thumbs and rotate their hands, thus transmitting their dreams to the ancient structure’s wish-fulfillment center. Because water can be seen coming out of it, people believe the column sweats, or cries, and that this is a miracle—it may also be a sign of poor care.

We walked among crowds of tourists, tour guides, and security guards, seeking perhaps the most curious object in the museum—not an inanimate piece of ancient history but a living animal. Gri, the famous Hagia Sophia cat, has a Tumblr devoted to him; the cross-eyed creature was named after the color of his coat. When Barack Obama visited Hagia Sophia in 2009, he was photographed fondling Gri’s head. We, too, fondled it; I asked Gri about his take on the mosque-versus-museum controversy. He raised his tail, purred, and turned away.

Not everyone’s reactions are so docile. “We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon,” said the Turkish deputy prime minister last year, implying that it should be opened to Islamic service. According to the Greek Foreign Ministry, his suggestion had been “an insult to the religious sensibilities of millions of Christians and actions that are anachronistic and incomprehensible from a state that declares it wants to participate as a full member in the EU.” Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was quoted as saying, “If it is to reopen as a house of worship, then it should open as a Christian church.”

Although most people take an either/or stance, some have proposed opening Hagia Sophia to both Islamic and Christian services. This is a welcome prospect to Christians, who have made a number of attempts to organize religious rituals. On one such occasion, in 2010, Turkey’s director of religious affairs said, “Turkey would not be a Christian country just because Christians performed their religious duties in a few churches.”

There’s precedent for such a hybrid, too. I came across numerous articles about the so-called church-mosques of Anatolia. Pazaryeri Camii, in the coastal city of Izmir, is one example: built for Christian service in 1874, it was repurposed as a mosque once Turkey became a republic. During the building’s renovation, the experts found Christian icons and decided to install a curtain system to cover them during Islamic prayers. Another church-mosque, in the Çardak village of Göreme, has been used by both Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Indeed, a Turkish columnist recommended a similar solution for Hagia Sophia: “We should allow Aya Sofya to become all three things at the same time!” she wrote. “Let’s keep it as a museum from Monday to Thursday, turn it into a mosque on Friday, close it for holiday on Saturday and use it as a church on Sunday. We can cover the floor with a carpet on Thursday nights and place chairs on Saturday nights.”

Whichever outcome arrives, it would be great if someone installed proper heating equipment there. And whoever manages the building shouldn’t forget about feeding Gri and managing his Tumblr feed. Above all, respect for the building’s immense heritage is a must. Otherwise the ghosts of Justinian and Constantine will surely haunt us—and so will the ghost of Mehmed the Conqueror, whose first action in front of Hagia Sophia was one of humility.

Kaya Genç is a novelist and essayist from Istanbul.




  1. A soul from Armenian Genocide | January 9, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Turks vanished 2600 Arminian Churches, Monasteries, schools, cathedrals …Still respected by European…They Modified beautiful Armenian cathedrals…To Turkish Temples …I don’t like to call it Mosques … because real Muslims who are the Arabs … will not do such thing…Those are “Turkish Temples” …When Khalifa Omar entered Jerusalem he prayed outside the Church so his people will not Transfer it to a mosque…respecting Christianity…Turks are Thieves because they are born pagan entered Islam in 13th Century to kill and confiscate and leave Arabs 500 years behind …See what they are doing in Syria…

  2. Samwise | January 9, 2014 at 9:08 am

    Patriarch Bartholomew, or any priest, will need more than chairs to celebrate Divine Liturgy there. A consecrated altar, incense, tabernacle…all these sacramentals are not so easily “covered up with a curtain”

  3. A soul from Armenian Genocide | January 9, 2014 at 9:12 am

    There is a Beautiful Armenian Churches in Isfahan,Iran you can see it in you-tubes called Vank which means in Armenian Monastery …build 1600 with beautiful frescos…till today no one Harmed it …even Iranian pray there to have their wishes come true…Many told me to visit…I call the VANK of Isfahan it the Vatican of Armenia
    Turks confiscate and and Persians respect the culture they are both muslims … but with different genes…!!!
    So religion nothing to do how people behaves…it is the gene which has the role…
    Please visit Armenian Vank of Isfahan and send your comments…!

  4. DHMCarver | January 9, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Did you mean to be sly, or ironic, when you wrote, “. . . Mehmed II, who would be christened conqueror by day’s end.” The Muslim conqueror of one of the greatest cities of Christendom was “christened” conqueror. . . .

  5. Mack Hall | January 9, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Attributing moral equivalence to Mehmet and St. Constantine XI Drageses is an intellectual error.

  6. Persona | January 9, 2014 at 10:59 am

    “Turks are Thieves because they are born pagan entered Islam in 13th Century to kill and confiscate and leave Arabs 500 years behind”. That sentence showed me that how rage can block prudence. Additionally, I would like to add that Turks were not the only ethnic group that converted churches into mosques. Act of conversion easily be found in European history. In example, Spanish city Cordoba had a mosque called as Great Mosque of Córdoba which is “one of the most accomplished” monuments of Moorish architecture. It is converted to church immediate after the end of Islamic rule in Spain. Basically, it is an identical case of the conversation of Hagia Sophia with one difference, nowadays, Muslims can’t pray on Hagia Sophia while in Cordoba, Christians can conduct their rituals.
    It is true that Turks converted Hagia Sophia however never defiled it. On the other hand, Hagia Sophia had horrendous experience during the Fourth Crusade. It was desecrated by Latin Christian invaders. Memory of Catholic cruelty motivated the last megas doux of the Byzantine Empire, Loukas Notaras to verbalise famous quote that “I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the City (i.e., Constantinople) than the Latin mitre”
    Personally, I’m really happy to see Hagia Sophia as a museum.

  7. Eva | January 9, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    Dear A soul from Armenian Genocide!
    All over the world, the sacred buildings have been converted in to other buildings and we see the continuation of using the sacred building with modifications. Christians used pagan temples, Muslims used churches etc. It is something common and normal! If you go the Greece, you will see some of the examples: PARTHENON: Magnificent pagan temple, first church, then mosque (minaret is still there) and now archaeological monument as it should be. Hagia Sophia should remain as a museum. The changing the statues of the building is just a political move, we all know that, AKP trying to get the votes of the muslim population and showing that he is following Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s way! I wonder what UNESCO says about this!!

  8. A soul from Armenian Genocide | January 9, 2014 at 2:28 pm

    Don’t make comparisons please …
    1. Arab entered Qurtuba and not the opposite
    Spain is a Spanish land … and it is true they build mosques…they left them and Spain did not abolish their homes…

    Turks entered Armenian highland they were invaders…they destroyed not one church as many 2600 and more after killing 1.5 million. few was
    and changed to “Turkish Temples called mosques.” …
    Armenians did not invade them they invaded and vanished churches till today…
    Forget about Aya safia… there are endless churches in so-called Turkey all destroyed…and they don’t put any penny to repair…recently the Kurds in Diyarbakir repaired the largest Armenian Church in the middles East build in 1860 ? Church of St. Garabed…it was bombed in May 1915
    …because the mayer’s mother is Armenian…and Kurds
    they confess they killed Armenians because Turks forced them to do…told them as muslims you should kill.They killed Armenians…Now they regret…!!!
    They wanted to vanish Akhtamar on the Van Lake, but A god Turkish person stopped it at last minute…It was build in 9th century still standing…with its beautiful Dome one of the Armenian UNISCO heritage place…!!!it was saved …at the last minute…!!! See Akhtamar on the Van lake in Wiki and every where…

  9. A soulfrom Armenian genocide | January 10, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Vandalism of Armenian Chuchs in so called Turkey
    The Beautiful 9th century church Akhtamar…To prove that Armenians never existed in their invaded land.
    After 1915, the church has been exposed to extensive vandalism. Before the restoration of the church, the reliefs on the church wall used as a poligon. Zakarya Mildanoğlu, an architect who was involved in the restoration process of the church, explains the situation during an interview with Hrant Dink as “The facade of the church is full of bullet holes. Some of them are so big that, they can not be covered during the renovation process. During many conferences related to the restoration of the Akhtamar church, the process of covering the bullet holes are identified as the hardest part of the restoration by academicians and architects. Some claim that the Armenian churches and gravestones have been exposed to vandalism as a part of the Turkish government policy which aims to destroy the Armenian heritage in Anatolia.
    In 1951 the Turkish government made a decision to destroy the church, but the writer Yasar Kemal managed to stop the destruction. He explained the situation to Alain Bosquet as “I was in a ship from Tatvan to Van. I met with a military officer Dr. Cavit Bey onboard. I told him, in this city there is a church descended from Armenians. It is a masterpiece. These days, they are demolishing this church. I will take you there tomorrow. This church is a monument of Anatolia. (Wikipedia, January,2014

  10. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. | January 10, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    This building is a lasting symbol of what became known as the Ottoman empire, a civilization that spanned from India to Spain. The empire preserved and contributed to Grecian science and philosophy. It changed human history. When Mehmed II was touring the newly conquered building, he saw his soldiers destroying polished fittings and ordered them to cease. Through the centuries, the relative rights of kafirs, non Muslims, or takfirs, Muslim apostates, fluctuated. The movement to make this ancient holy place a museum, in the 20 th century, was an attempt by secularists, to isolate the conflicts, from everyday life. However the current violence all over Islam, indicates a total failure in the religion of peace. All of the monotheistic religions have experienced this insanity. Our common father Abraham can not be pleased with our conduct. We must respect each other, if not our concept of our Supreme Being.

  11. Wemedge | January 11, 2014 at 1:25 pm

    Sure the Turks stole Istanbul and Agia Sofia but whining about it won’t change anything. History tells us who is right and who is wrong and old grievances are best put behig you. Even though I’m a committed Christian I think dual use of A.S. is a great idea. Does not the Bible prohibit us from taking revenge? God administers His final justice and that has to be good enough for us if we want to avoid endless conflict.

  12. Seraphim | February 5, 2014 at 12:24 am

    Chairs?! Keep the rugs for the Divine Liturgy!

  13. Nauman Khan | July 18, 2015 at 6:44 am

  14. Bob | August 23, 2015 at 1:00 am

    Ottoman’s were just muslim thieves – Hagia Sophia was built by and for Christians in a Christian city. The Ottoman’s never built anything like it – and Turks today are still pretending this European Christian artefact is theirs.

  15. erol yesilyurt | November 11, 2015 at 2:17 am

    Kaya Genç’s article is unfortunately vulgarising the importance of turning the Hagia Sofia, once again to a mosque. Although he does with good intentions,him writing that ”Mehmed the Conqueror, whose first action in front of Hagia Sophia was one of humility,” is an unfortunate statement, not because Mehmed, was a barbarian, but because, such statements are mere distractions. After all we are in 2015, one hundred years after 1915 and that my country makes no attempts to address the injustices of the past and is also fast turning into a completely monolithic space instead of recognising the wrongs of the past. Within this context, the current debate represents another dark page and a warning sign for all of us.

  16. Zorbec le Gras | November 11, 2015 at 3:05 am

    Nice article, thanks. Just a bit puzzled by “(…) Mehmed II, who would be christened conqueror by day’s end.”, a rather unfortunate choice of word for “christened”…

  17. Bill | June 1, 2016 at 6:19 am

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