The Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom,” in Istanbul, Turkey was, for centuries, at the heart of the Christian Byzantine Empire. Then it was also the heart of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Today it remains the center of tension between the two religions. In July of this year, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a play to his nationalist base, converted the museum (a neutral zone for both religions and open to the public for viewing) back into a mosque. The decision came with criticism from the Eastern Orthodox Church in Istanbul, as well as international organizations like UNESCO, who protect historic monuments throughout the world.

The Hagia Sophia, completed in 537 CE, was the crown jewel of Emperor Justinian’s Constantinople, boasting the largest enclosed space in antiquity and vaunting a massive dome that writers claimed was held by a gold chain descending from heaven. The church’s interior was decorated with marble, intricately carved columns and stunning mosaics of stone, gold and glass. However, by 1453 the Turks, under Mehmed II, conquered Constantinople and, after destroying much of the city, turned the church into a mosque. 

Christian mosaics were plastered over to hide religious icons–a form of idolatry–and liturgical instruments were either broken, stolen or melted into gold to pay soldiers of the siege. In 1934, Mustafa Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, reopened the Hagia Sophia as a museum,” allowing people of all faiths to admire the grandeur of the building. Covered mosaics were rediscovered and displayed for the general public. 

One of the works found was that of Christ the Pantocrator from the “Deeis” mosaic, which depicts an adult Christ with gold and dark blue robes and a gold halo with cross centering, holding a book (likely the Bible) and giving a blessing. Christ is flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist, pleading with him to show humanity and mercy on Judgement Day. The mosaic is greatly damaged on the bottom half from reckless restoration techniques used to repair the building after an earthquake in 1894. 

Now that the Hagia Sophia has been reconverted into a mosque, the building is less accessible to viewers during Muslim prayers, and Christian images and mosaics are now being covered with curtains because of their idolic nature. Luckily, the mosaics have not been damaged by the Turkish government or fundamentalist individuals, though there is still concern within the international community, and art historians across the globe, who fear that this could be the first step in the destruction of the works, or at the very least, a barrier to those who would like to see the masterpieces within the monument.

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