Hagia Sophia revisited
Since the beginning of the process that ended up with the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, I have been spending a lot of my time around the vicinity of that magnificent structure dominating Sultanahmet Square.
I had watched the spectacular festivities for the 567th anniversary of the Conquest on May 29 in front of Hagia Sophia where all its long history since its inauguration in 537, i.e. 1,483 years ago, was a mix of war and peace, of construction and destruction, of love and hate of one God or another.
But being there among the crowds who were celebrating this year’s Fetih, back in May, I already had started sensing that this year was to be an end of Hagia Sophia as a museum. All the political and religious signs were there to alert us all that this ancient monument was to undergo yet another mutation. A pious Turkish citizen I interviewed while we were all watching the digitized story of the building spread out in front of our eyes on a cloth wall, told me that his, his father’s and his grandfather’s wish had been to pray one day inside when Hagia Sophia became a mosque again. He was an old resident of the Sultanahmet neighborhood. A month later, I watched that same person being interviewed by a Turkish channel expressing his joy that at last, he could fulfil his wish this year.
Earlier this week I had the chance to enter the Grand Mosque of Hagia Sophia. It was like entering a different building. It was not a matter of comparing it with its previous state as a museum with all its Christian and Muslim features displayed side by side. It was not that I could not mentally abstract the Christian features, forget about mosaics and frescoes and concentrate on the Muslim symbols. It was a strange feeling that I was not in the same place, that the older Hagia Sophia had just disappeared. I think the main reason for this feeling of estrangement was the lack of natural light previously beaming down from the multiple windows, now blocked by various types and sizes of cloth covering. It was also because I was not allowed to visit the women’s quarters the Gynaikeion on the first floor where most fine mosaics are. For the moment it is closed to visitors.
I talked to several people, Turkish Muslims who were overwhelmed with joy that at last Hagia Sophia went back to its old status serving the Muslim faith. However, almost nobody mentioned the initial purpose of the building as a church long before the birth of Islam. The Turkish people I spoke to are counting the life of Hagia Sophia from the day Mehmet conquered Constantinople in 1453 and bequeathed to the nation after converting to a mosque. History is also an individual choice, I thought.
Talking about history: I went back to one of the most amazing sources for information about the history of Istanbul. It is written between 1851 and 1869 by Skarlatos Byzantios, a polymath and polyglot Rum from Istanbul who in his three-volume work describes street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood how the city was during his time. His “Constantinople” gives us an eye-witness account of the city almost two hundred years ago. He has devoted several pages in describing all the monuments around Sultanahmet area and gives us interesting details about Hagia Sophia, which was a mosque in his time.
One extremely interesting detail is that, unlike other ancient Byzantine churches, there is no information of tombs of saints, emperors or patriarchs within Hagia Sophia. There were two exceptions, though, writes Skarlatos, and one of them is during the Latin period, when the Hagia Sophia was converted to a Latin Cathedral under the Latin rule, the French Marie, wife of Baldwin I, the Latin emperor was buried inside the Grand Church. The second exception is the famous or infamous Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, the leader of the Fourth Crusade who ransacked the City and particularly Hagia Sophia. Dandolo died in 1205 almost centenarian and was buried somewhere inside church. A 19th century cenotaph with a grave marker was placed on the upper floor in the women’s quarters during the Fossati brothers’ major restoration. His name is still visible to date. Apparently Dandolo’s grave marker is to be covered by carpet once the conversion work of the mosque of Hagia Sophia is finished. The amazing thing is that Skarlatos Byzantios actually was around when the Fossati restoration was taking place and noted down in his book.
It is difficult to compare history and faith. Who am I to tell a praying man whom I saw crying bitterly with eyes closed on the carpeted floor of the Hagia Sophia mosque that underneath where he was kneeling, there may be important remnants of the history of this City?
But still, I think that somehow everybody should know everything even about the places of faith. They have deeper roots than what we believe.