From Hagia Sophia to Aya Sofya Cami

Just read the news that Hagia Sophia Museum has been reconverted into a Mosque through a Presidential order in Turkey. Hagia Sofia or “Holy Wisdom” is also known as Ayasofya Cami or Aya Sofya Mosque in Turkish. It is one of the most prominent cultural and religious landmarks in Istanbul or perhaps whole of Turkey. My mind raced back to 9 August 2019 when I along with my family visited this historic building along with my guide Serkan. We were part of small group which had only two families, mine, and a British couple. The British couple were with us during the first half of the tour which included visit to Ayup Sultan Turbesi, Pierre Loti, Spice Bazaar and Cruise on Bosphorus Strait. In the second half was included the Blue Mosque, Hippodrome and Aya Sofya. However, the British couple had already been to Aya Sofya earlier, so they decided to give it a skip effectively making my tour a private one. We had a very knowledgeable guide entirely for us. The queue outside Aya Sofya was serpentine but one of the privileges of having a guide in Turkey is that you jump queue, hence we were inside within 2 minutes.

It is one of the oldest standing religious structure in the world. It was the pride of Nova Roma or Constantinople and was a church for whole of Christianity for almost half a millennia before the divide between Eastern Orthodox Church and Catholic Church. It was founded in 537 which makes it almost 1000 years older to St. Peters Basilica in Vatican.  It was built in 537 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I. For centuries it was the largest dome in the world and the largest interior space in the world. It is justifiably considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It is said that on the completion of the Hagia Sophia when Justinian visited the Hagia Sophia for the first time he exclaimed with pride that “Solomon, I have outdone thee”.

Hagia Sophia was constructed first as a Church in 360 A.D by the Roman Empire. It was burned and reburned several times during uprisings. The present structure was constructed by the Byzantines in the 6th century on the orders of Emperor Justinian I. Over the years it was destroyed several times due to earthquakes and by Crusaders and was rebuilt several times. The structure is witness to the changes in history and its fortunes have also changed with the changes in power structure. It was a Byzantine Christian Church from 537 to 1054. From 1054 to 1204 it was Greek Orthodox Church. In 1204, it was converted into a Roman Church. In 1261 it was reconverted into Greek Orthodox Church and remained so till 1453 when it was converted into an Imperial Mosque after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans who also renamed the city from Constantinople to Istanbul. It was given the name of Ayasofya Cami (Mosque of Ayasofya) by the Ottomans and minarates were added to it. It remained a Mosque from 1453 to 1935 when it was converted into a Museum during the time of Mustafa Kamal Ataturk. It has been converted back into a Mosque on 10 July 2020. Today it is also a final resting place for 5 Ottoman Sultans and their families.

After its conversion back to Mosque the entrance fees has been cancelled. It will still be open to all faiths. According to Erdogan “Like all our Mosques, its door will be open to everyone, Muslims or non-Muslims. As the world’s common heritage, Hagia Sophia with its new status will keep on embracing everyone in a more sincere way”. The first prayers in the Ayasofya Cami will be Friday prayers on 24th July 2020. It would not be out of place to remember that it was 24th July 1923 when the treaty in Switzerland’s city of  Lausanne ended the hostilities between the Allies and the Turkish state.

However, the debate continues whether this is a right decision or not from religious point of view and whether this was the right time for this decision? Those who know their history and have sense of today’s geo-politics can only be amused at the assertion of those who believe that the next step is the establishment of Ottoman Caliphate.

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