Muslim prayers at world magnet Hagia Sophia

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ISTANBUL: Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, announced on Friday that Muslim prayers would begin on 24 July at the UNESCO world heritage site Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish).

In the past, he has repeatedly called for the building to be redesignated as a mosque, and in 2018 he recited a verse from the Qur’an at Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia

Erdoğan’s announcement came after a court cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision under modern Turkey’s secularising founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to preserve the church-turned-mosque as a museum.

A magnet for tourists worldwide, the Hagia Sophia was first constructed as a cathedral in the Christian Byzantine empire but was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Pope Francis has said he was “very distressed” over Turkey’s decision to convert the Byzantine-era monument Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

“My thoughts go to Istanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed,” the pontiff said in the Vatican’s first reaction to a decision that has drawn international criticism.

The Hagia Sophia is an enormous architectural marvel in Istanbul, Turkey, that was originally built as a Christian basilica nearly 1,500 years ago. Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Parthenon in Athens, the Hagia Sophia is a long-enduring symbol of the cosmopolitan city. However, as notable as the structure is itself, its role in the history of Istanbul—and, for that matter, the world—is also significant and touches upon matters related to international politics, religion, art and architecture.

The Hagia Sophia anchors the Old City of Istanbul and has served for centuries as a landmark for both Orthodox Christians and Muslims, as its significance has shifted with that of the dominant culture in the Turkish city.

Istanbul straddles the Bosporus strait, a waterway that serves as a geographic border between Europe and Asia. The Turkish city of nearly 15 million residents thus lies in both continents.

The Hagia Sophia was originally built as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. However, its function has changed several times in the centuries since.

Byzantine Emperor Constantius commissioned construction of the first Hagia Sophia in 360 A.D. At the time of the first church’s construction, Istanbul was known as Constantinople, taking its name from Constantius’ father, Constantine I, the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire.

The first Hagia Sophia featured a wooden roof. The structure was burned to the ground in 404 A.D. during the riots that occurred in Constantinople as a result of political conflicts within the family of then-Emperor Arkadios, who had a tumultuous reign from 395 to 408 A.D.

Arkadios’ successor, Emperor Theodosios II, rebuilt the Hagia Sophia, and the new structure was completed in 415. The second Hagia Sophia contained five naves and a monumental entrance and was also covered by a wooden roof.

However, a little more than one century later, this would again prove to be a fatal flaw for this important basilica of the Greek Orthodox faith, as the structure was burned for a second time during the so-called “Nika revolts” against Emperor Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565.

Unable to repair the damage caused by the fire, Justinian ordered the demolition of the Hagia Sophia in 532. He commissioned renowned architects Isidoros (Milet) and Anthemios (Tralles) to build a new basilica.

The third Hagia Sophia was completed in 537, and it remains standing today.

The first religious services in the “new” Hagia Sophia were held on December 27, 537. At the time, Emperor Justinian is reported to have said, “My Lord, thank you for giving me the chance to create such a worshipping place.”