The Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) basilica in Istanbul is the largest and only best of Byzantine architecture. Its construction was ordered by Emperor Justinian and came about between 532 and 537 AD. According to the annals of history, Justinian said of the basilica upon its completion, “Solomon, I have outdone you", making a direct connection to the Temple of Jerusalem ruined by the Romans less than 50 years after the birth of Christ.
The huge dome bears a rich symbolism that embodies both Paradise and Creation, while the nave writes an accurate description of the Earth. The architectural lineage of the building comes directly from the Holy Land, where the martyria shelter the sites associated with the Passion of Jesus Christ and martyrs for the Christian faith. Other basilicas with the same affinities, built in Constantinople during the reign of Justinian, were built to honor the memory of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, Saint Irene, and the Apostles of Jesus.
Famous for its monumental dome and recognized as the epitome of Byzantine architecture, the Hagia Sophia changed the history of architecture. It was the largest Christian church, or any building, in the world for nearly one thousand years.
From the date of its dedication in 360 until 1453, the basilica was used as the cathedral of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, except during a period between the 1204 and 1261 when it served as the cathedral of the Latin Patriarchate of Constantinople.
It was in 1453 that Constantinople was over-run by the Muslim Turks and became known as Istanbul. For nearly 500 years, it served as a mosque, having been seized by the Ottoman Turks. Muslim architects added Islamic elements such as minarets and the mithrab. The stunning and rich mosaics on the interior of the church, illustrating the life of Christ and the saints were erased with plaster. However, following the overthrow of Ottoman rule by the dictator Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it was converted into a museum in 1935.
Turkey's parliament is now considering, as a first step, a proposal for the Hagia Sophia to revert to its status as a mosque. This is according to Adnan Ertem, the chief of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Foundations. The final decision was made by the Minister of Culture.
The demand comes following a decree by the Islamist government of Turkey to convert a church in Nicea, also called Hagia Sophia, into a mosque. Now known in Turkish as İznik, it was at Nicea where two of the great ecumenical councils of the Church were held, in 325 and 787 AD. Last summer, an idea was hatched to do the same with another Christian basilica of the same name in Trebizond, in the province of Trabzon Ili.
In the 1960s, the basilica church in Iznik was converted into a museum, as was the much grander basilica in Istanbul. The interior of the basilica is adorned with frescoes depicting scenes from the New and Old Testaments, which are an undisputed pinnacle of Byzantine art. The frescoes, which were covered with plaster, were discovered and restored when it was transformed into a museum and thus became a tourist attraction.
Radical Islamists are seeking to make Christian basilicas and temples of great historical importance into mosques, plastering over their essential Christian character. And it is these same Muslim fundamentalists who are thus aiming to banish Christians and Christian culture to the catacombs.
Spero columnist Clemente Ferrer is President of the European Institute of Marketing.
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