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Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque again. No reason for Christians to grieve, but a missed opportunity

July 14, 2020

There are many reasons why Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the world: the Bosphorus ferry, Topkapi, the bazaars, the Theodosian Walls, the restaurants and coffee shops of Sultanahmet, the mosaics of the Chora.

But one place stands above all of the glories of the city. For me, Hagia Sophia is the holy of holies. Not so much in the religious sense, but as a symbol of the endurance of faith. For nearly a thousand years, this glorious building was a Christian church. It witnessed the crowning of emperors, doctrinal schisms, and, in times of invasion, plague and civil war, throngs of supplicants praying for deliverance. Until, in 1453, the prayers of the desperate were not answered, and Constantinople fell to the Ottomans.

For the next four hundred years it was a mosque, rivalled in the city only by the Blue Mosque and the Mosque of the Conqueror. And then, after the fall of the Ottomans, the secular government of Kemal Ataturk re-designated it as a museum.

Whenever I’ve visited the Hagia Sofia, I’ve sensed that, magnificent though it’s vast interior is, decorated with Christian mosaics and Islamic banners, something was missing. The sound of prayer, for which the building was designed. Not only spoken prayer, but choral music and recitation, be it of the Christian gospel or the Quran.

For this reason I’m not grief-stricken at the decision of Turkish government to turn the clock back and re-designate the building as a mosque. I’ve no doubt that non-Muslims will still be able to visit it, because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says so. I hope that the symbols of all of its past will remain, because permanently to cover up the mosaics and icons would be an act of cultural vandalism.

I believe, though, that the President, who is the prime mover behind the decision, is missing an opportunity.

What better way to promote reconciliation between faiths whose followers have spilt so much blood fighting each other over centuries to share the building as a place of worship?

I know of no doctrinal reason why Christians should be unwilling to share a place of worship with Muslims. Though I’m no expert in Islamic fiq, I fail to see why Muslims should not prepared to do likewise.

It shouldn’t be beyond the wit of People of the Book to work out an acceptable modus operandi. Since the two faiths have different days of rest, there needn’t be conflict over which days are given over to which faith. And I can’t see a reason why Muslim’s shouldn’t celebrate Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al Adha, while Christians can worship at Christmas and Easter, since the holy days of the respective faiths rarely coincide.

Perhaps I’m being naive, but wouldn’t it be a powerful symbol of respect and reconciliation for Hagia Sofia to become a place of worship that reflects its whole history rather than return to being the exclusive domain of a single faith?

I would certainly rejoice if Justinian’s greatest monument once again rang out with voices in prayer. Much as I love it as a symbol of the past, would it not come alive again as a place for celebrating the present and the future?

P.S. (the day after I originally posted this): if you think that this is a simple matter, think again. This excellent article by a Byzantine art historian gives chapter and verse on why the politics of the moment would make the initiative I suggest fiendishly difficult. Still an opportunity, though perhaps one for the future. Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya has been around for fifteen hundred years. It can wait.

From → Art, History, Religion, Travel

  1. deborah a moggio permalink

    Perhaps you could suggest the same to the Israelis for the Temple Mount?
    Netanyahu is equally fair minded as Erdogan.

    • Hi Debby. I’m a fan of neither, but both are susceptible to pressure if it comes from the right places. But the right placers are in the wrong place at the moment.

      • deborah a moggio permalink

        seems to me much of the world is in another world from the one I live in.
        I’ve always been an outsider, and comfortable in that role, but this is getting to be ridiculous.
        Shall we start a new one? I elect you Benign Despot (subject to revision at any time of my chosing)

      • You do me a great honour, Debby. One of my favourite historical titles is the Despot of Morea, who ruled over the Peloponnese during the death throes of Byzantium. (

        However, like you, I prefer to remain at the outside of the world – that place where you’re on the cusp of falling off. S

      • deborah moggio permalink

        Yep! That’s my address.

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