3 May 2013
Haghia Sophia is known the world over for its complex and beautiful domed architecture. In this photo, a fish-eye lens lends a sense of scale to the structure. (photo: Ilene Perlman)
Yesterday’s New York Times brought some news about controversial plans for one of the most famous and historically significant church structures in the world, the Church of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey:
In 1921 an ecumenical service was held in six languages at St. John the Divine, New York City’s Episcopal cathedral, to call for the return of Byzantium’s most important monument to the Orthodox Church. Days after his 1453 conquest of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, Mehmet II decided to turn the 6th century basilica of St. Sophia into a mosque. Some 500 years later, with the city under Allied occupation, Christendom wanted the building back.
Its prayers were never answered. As the Turkish Republic emerged from the ashes of empire, the new nation’s founding president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ruled that a building over which two faiths squabbled should be made accessible to all: St. Sophia was turned into the Ayasofya Museum.
That solution not only silenced self-righteous voices in the West; it also helped establish Turkey’s credentials as a worthy custodian for its cultural heritage. Since restoration work in the 1930s, St. Sophia’s stunning mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Jesus have sat beside huge panels of Islamic calligraphy.
For some time, Turkey’s religious and nationalist right has demanded that Ayasofya be converted into a mosque again. Now a parliamentary commission is taking the request seriously.
Why this is a problem is easily illustrated by the restoration of St. Sergius and Bacchus, a 6th century church in Istanbul, after an earthquake in 1999. The undertaking should have been an occasion for scholarly investigation, but instead the floors were ripped up, the walls painted over and a dome added on top — without any consultation with conservationists.
The transformation of historical buildings invariably means finding subtle solutions to delicate problems: how to temporarily cover up figurative Christian art or provide all-weather protection to an open-air ruin. But the priority of the General Directorate of Foundations is to put buildings back into circulation, not to protect or extract their secrets.
You can read more at the Times.
Several years ago, we took readers to this legendary landmark for a closer look at its history and importance:
The Church of Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey has had a lasting impact on faith and worship. It is often simply called “the Great Church” because of its grandeur and its important role in the Byzantine Christianity.
An engineering marvel of late antiquity, Haghia Sophia stood unsurpassed in size and splendor for a thousand years. Even today it dominates the skyline of modern Istanbul -formerly Constantinople — which from 330 to 1453 was the capital of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire. Time has faded Haghia Sophia’s splendor, but not diminished the majestic soar of its arches and domes.
Read more about The Great Church from the July 1997 issue of the magazine.
Tags: Eastern Christianity Turkey Islam Byzantium Haghia Sophia