When I teach the course on Christian History (see my videos on YouTube), I always emphasize to my students that Christian or church history is still taking place every day. And on some days, very significant historical events take place that will impact Christianity in the centuries to come. One such recent example would be the great fire that nearly destroyed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2019.
This week another very significant event occurred affecting a historic Christian structure. The president of Turkey on Friday, July 10, announced that the Hagia Sophia (“Sacred Wisdom”) church building in Istanbul would be converted into a mosque after being a museum open to the public since 1934. Why is this significant?
The Hagia Sophia church building was built by Roman Emperor Justinian between AD 532-537 to replace the earlier church destroyed by fire. (Read all about the building on Wikipedia.) It became the center and headquarters for the Orthodox branch of Christianity until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. It was then converted from a Christian church into a Muslim mosque. So, for over 900 years it was a place of Christian worship. And it was the largest Christian church building in the world until the construction of some of the European cathedrals in the Middle Ages.
After its conversion to a mosque by the Ottomans, its wall paintings were plastered over and almost all vestiges of Christianity removed and replaced by Islamic symbols. At the end of World War I, the Ottoman Empire centered in Turkey dissolved since it was part of the Axis Powers which lost that war. In 1934 the new secular government of Turkey struck a neutral position in turning the Hagia Sophia into a museum, preventing both Christians and Muslims from claiming it as exclusively theirs.
Since becoming a museum, a significant part of the original Christian art has been restored while protecting the Islamic art as well. The Hagia Sophia is the most visited tourist site in Turkey with over 3.5 million annual visitors. But, if the current decision by the Turkish president (and leader of Turkey’s leading Islamic political party) stands, everything will quickly change. Mosques are not open to non-Muslims, and Christian art – even of great antiquity and significance – will not be allowed there. The Hagia Sophia is a UNESCO World heritage site, meaning it is one of only a few hundred places worldwide considered of such great historical significance that it should be protected for future generations.
Like to know more about the Hagia Sophia? Here are some links to learn more:
- Wikipedia article about the Hagia Sophia.
- YouTube video about the Hagia Sophia.
- A Khan Academy video about the Hagia Sophia.
- National Geographic article about the significance of this news event.
- A NOVA documentary on the artwork in the Hagia Sophia.
Our images are from the Wikimedia Commons collection of photos of the Hagia Sophia.