Hagia Sophia, the shrine built in AD 537, encapsulates the best of Asia and Europe. The specialty of Hagia Sophia, which stands majestically in the Turkish capital of Istanbul, near the Bosphorous narrows, can never be a representative of just one culture or society.
The shrine, initially built as the largest Christian church of the eastern Roman Empire, was later converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Empire. Again, in 1935, some 1400 years after its inception, the mosque was made into a museum by the secular Turkish government. In 2020, it reopened again as a mosque and was in the news for that.
When it was completed in AD 537, it was the largest interior space in the world.
As one alights the Metro at Sulthan Ahmed station and walks towards the mosque, it doesn't exude the magnificence of the Blue Mosque.
But once inside, Hagia Sophia is a world of exquisite beauty that lands one in wonderment. For, each turn and corner wrap tales of at least two empires and its wars, their reigns, and the subsequent fall.
Hagia Sophia has the distinction of exhibiting the religious symbols of both Islam and Christianity. This is probably one thing that draws thousands of visitors to Hagia Sophia. It is common to come across tourists taking a vantage seat and gazing at the Christian mosaic pictures and the Islamic calligraphy art at the shrine. They are among the connoisseurs who take time out to internalize the details of the works of art on the ceiling, the pillars, and the grand doors.
Historically, Hagia Sophia is the third shrine to have come up at the location. The campus houses the remains of the earlier shrine which was destroyed in a revolt against Roman emperor Justinian I. The Nika riots destroyed the shrine built by emperor Theodosianus in AD 415.
The conflict at the end of a chariot race and the discontentment against official apathy ultimately turned out to be a revolt against the emperor. Thousands of people got killed. Emperor Justinian I had to pacify the populace and h then built a new shrine and a city. It remained the place of worship of the Eastern Orthodox Church till 1204 when the Roman Catholics took over the place and converted the shrine into a Roman Catholic Cathedral. In 1261, the Byzantine empire gained control of the shrine. It was so till 1453 when the Ottoman Empire took control of the region. When Mehmed II took control of Constantinople, the shrine became a mosque.
In 1931, Ataturk or Mustafa Kemal Pasha closed down the place of worship. It was reopened as a museum in 1935. The grand building then was seen as the confluence of two great religions and there was no one monument in the world that was visited by tourists for this very reason.
Observers and scholars worldwide are apprehensive that the ancient Christian symbols, witness to many years of history, could be destroyed as the shrine is now an Islamic place of worship.
The authorities have promised that the ancient inscriptions and works of art would be preserved. The images would go under a veil during prayer time alone, they say.