- BBC News World
It is perhaps Istanbul’s most iconic construction, a colossal cathedral on the west bank of the Bosphorus, with a fantastical dome and minarets dominating the panorama and whose walls contain centuries of art, political strife , religious quarrels and nationalist effervescence.
Originally known as Hagia Sophia of Constantinopleduring its 1,500 years of existence, has been a place of worship for Orthodox and Catholic Christians as well as for Muslims, it has been under the rule of different empires and has undergone various transformations.
although today it’s a museum, Hagia Sophia was first a basilica Yes then a mosque.
This Friday, in a controversial decision, a Turkish court authorized the conversion of the monument into a Muslim temple, a decision that not only confronts Greece and Turkey, but also raises international concern over the fate of this world heritage site.
The current structure It’s the third Holy Sofia raised on site. The previous two were destroyed by fires that devastated them in 404 and 532.
That same year, it began to be rebuilt by order of Emperor Justinian I.
Engineers and materials were brought from different parts of the Mediterranean.
With its lavish decorations and ornaments, when completed in record time in 537, it quickly became the crown jewel of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire -also known as the Eastern Roman Empire- built on the ruins of the Greek city of Byzantium. . .
In addition to his beauty, he fulfilled an essential: he was seat of the orthodox patriarch and Byzantine imperial ceremonies – such as coronations – were performed inside.
There is no trace of the original construction, but pieces of marble from the second – destroyed by fire during the riots in Constantinople in 532 – are visible in this version, says Dionysios Stathakopoulos, professor at King’s University , at BBC World. and specialist in Byzantine history.
Many believe it is dedicated to a saint named Sophia. But no. “Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom, so it means Holy Wisdom, which is a way of describing the existence of God,” Stathakopoulos says.
For nearly 900 years, Hagia Sophia was home to the Eastern Orthodox Church, except for a brief period in the 13th century when it was a Catholic cathedral under the control of European invaders who sacked and occupied Constantinople during the Fourth crusade.
If its function was above all religious, its status as an icon elevated it even more: it symbolized the Byzantine Empire and its power and those who visited the city were amazed by its size and its architecture.
“You have to keep in mind that its huge dome was not reproduced for almost a thousand years, until the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome,” says Stathakopoulos.
Constantinople’s fortunes changed dramatically in 1453, when the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mehmed II captured the city and renamed it Istanbul, ending Byzantine rule. For the Greeks, it is another cursed date which marks one of the saddest episodes in their history.
Upon entering Hagia Sophia, Mehmed II insisted that it be renovated and turned into a mosque. The first Friday prayers took place a few days after the ransacking of the place by his forces.
Ottoman architects removed or pasted over Orthodox symbols from the interior and they added capitals and minarets to the structure.
It was Istanbul’s main mosque until the construction of the Blue Mosque in 1616, which, like many other mosques around the world, was influenced in its design by Hagia Sophia.
The mighty Ottoman Empire came to an end after World War I and its territory was divided among the victorious allies. From its rubble was also born the modern state of Turkey, thanks to a strong nationalist movement.
Its founder and first lay president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, ordered Hagia Sophia to be turned into a museum.
“Historians say that the newly established Republic of Turkey sought to include the legacies of all the civilizations that formed the country, including the Byzantine and the Ottoman, while reaffirming its secular character with this decision,” Irem said. Koker at BBC Mundo, reporter for the BBC Turkish Service.
Since its opening as a museum in 1935, Hagia Sophia has become one of Turkey’s most visited tourist attractions, including by world leaders and personalities.
It has also appeared in numerous films which have used its spectacular architecture as a scenic backdrop. The IMDb movie database records 22 occasions in which it served as a filming location.
James Bond “visited” him twice, almost 50 years apart, in “From Russia with Love” (1963) and “Skyfall” (2012).
“Argo”, the international mystery film that won Ben Affleck the Best Director Oscar, shot some scenes there in 2012, and more recently, the Turkish sci-fi series on Nexflix “The Protector”, presents panoramas of present-day Istanbul that include the monument.
Now, 85 years after its conversion, staunch Islamist and Muslim groups have renewed calls for the monument to be transformed into a mosque, arguing that maintaining its status as a museum undermines Turkey’s sovereignty, and have staged protests against a 1934 law that banned religious services. to be held inside.
Irem Koker of the BBC Turkish Service recalls that in 2015 a conservative NGO called the Anatolian Youth Association held morning prayers in front of Hagia Sophia and in 2018 the President Erdogan read verses from the Quran inside the museum.
And during a campaign ahead of local elections in 2019, the president said it had been a “very serious mistake” to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum.
“As an Islamist leader, it is in line with his ideology and it is also an action supported by his electoral base,” said Irem Koker.
Bartolomeo I, head of the Eastern Orthodox Church, known as the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople – which is still based in Istanbul – warned a few weeks ago that the conversion of the place “would disappoint millions of Christians” and would shatter two worlds.
“Its status as a museum allows Byzantine and Ottoman works to be exhibited side by side. It’s not as if either has been erased. They coexist peacefully. Changing that would create something completely different” , explains Professor Dionysios Stathakopoulos, who fears for the historical and artistic integrity of the place.
“Many monuments that were converted into mosques after being museums in Turkey’s modern state have seen their works of art and structures severely altered and damaged,” the professor said.
“The changes would be fundamental. The place cannot be converted into a mosque by removing only a few crosses,” he concludes.
From a geopolitical point of view, the producer of BBC Turkish Service explains that the tensions between Turkey and Greece, is it so at one point otherIs due to disputes over natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean, the refugee crisis and border disputes.
“If the conversion takes place, it is very likely that the diplomatic crisis between two NATO allies will worsen. Moreover, Ankara’s relations with the United States and other Western countries would deteriorate,” he said. he said a few days before the announcement of the court decision.
Furthermore, one of Turkey’s most important symbols of secularism would cease to exist. And, even if the sense of ownership by a part of Turkish society would be reaffirmed, the feeling of loss on the part of the Greeks would be accentuated.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said weeks ago that any changes to Hagia Sophia’s status would reduce the temple’s ability to “serve humanity as a vital bridge between these different spiritual and cultural traditions.”
And US Ambassador Plenipotentiary for International Religious Liberty Affairs Sam Brownback had urged Turkey to leave the cathedral intact.
However, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu insisted that Athens had no say in decisions affecting the structure, as it is located in Turkish territory.
“What we do in our country and with our property depends on us,” he told Turkish channel 24 TV.
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