Hagia Sophia has become a Stranger in a Strange Land
Updated: Sep 10, 2022
In October 2020, I wrote the post “We could all use a little Holy Wisdom” about the Turkish government’s actions to convert the astonishing and historically significant Hagia Sophia museum, the Byzantine church once the center of Christianity and western civilization, to a mosque to satisfy a political whim of their ruling leadership. The international community, for the most part, and UNESCO, who had included Hagia Sophia in a World Heritage Site designation for a section of historic Istanbul some years ago, rose up in protest, but to no avail. The change was made, with promises from the Turkish President and the Minister of Religious Affairs that things would not only be the same, but somehow better. There would be no entrance fees. Ancient mosaics and frescoes would be protected and preserved. All perspectives of history would be respected. It all sounded too good to be true.
This month I made my fifth visit to the historic structure, which means “Holy Wisdom” and is named after the second person of the Trinity, the Son. This was my first visit since it had been converted to a mosque. Would the promises be kept?
Of course not.
It is true that entrance fees are now not charged, robbing Turkey of a significant tourism income, by the way, since Hagia Sophia was its number one visited tourist site. And how can you possibly charge an entrance fee for a place of worship anyway?
In today’s Hagia Sophia, I felt like a Stranger in a Strange Land. The entire atmosphere and dynamics had changed. No longer was the scene a mixed international group, with accents from around the world. No longer were there lines waiting to purchase tickets or information brochures or audio tours. Instead, the majority of the group there were young and Muslim, judging solely by the headscarves. To be clear, I have no problem with that. I am simply describing the dIstinctions between then and now.
Watch a video clip below.
Entering the site was pure chaos. We stood outside in a cluster in the hot August sun for a good two hours—the security guards predicted 20-30 minutes—while a special group was given VIP treatment. Who was this special group, we all wondered, as people waiting in the heat started to pass out. The special visitors were literally hundreds of school aged children accompanied by Muslim clerics. As they left —at their leisure, while hundreds of tourists stood outside in the heat—they were handed box lunches provided by the city/district of Fatih, which administers the area of Hagia Sophia. Lucky them.
The crowd was getting impatient while waiting for the children and their teachers, who were taking their time and doing photo sessions inside, and started shouting at security. The security officials opened the barriers for a few moments and the crowd started moving, and then security decided to close the barriers again, but it was too late: the crowd surged forward and pushed past the barriers and the security forces. All you could do as an individual was to go with the flow. Forget social distancing (which was already good nonexistent); my goal was not to be trampled underfoot.
As we approached the entrance, we encountered a sign to remind us that this was a mosque, no longer a museum. Women were not allowed shorts or indecent clothing (nor should they be) and must wear a head scarf. If you didn’t have one, you could conveniently purchase one. I had to take a detour to a store to purchase the head scarf, then enter through the huge doors. Carpets had been placed on the floors, and shoes must come off. So my shoes came off, I stepped over the centuries old threshold, and entered a completely unrecognizable Hagia Sophia. This was the Stranger in a Strange Land scene.
The Hagia Sophia of our time is gone.
Those who have visited Hagia Sophia in its former years as a museum (so designated in 1935 after Turkey became a Republic) undoubtedly remember the many tours groups with their little flags to keep the groups together, and tour guides in so many languages that it sounded like the Tower of Babel itself in Hagia Sophia. Individual tourists holding maps and brochures, stopping to gaze at arches, mosaics, and ancient painting, lovingly restored by artists over the years. Audio tourists, walking around as if in a trance, listening to the 1500 year history of this architectural and cultural wonder.
Upstairs were the precious frescoes and mosaics. Visitors stood in awe of the historic and religious significance and paid respect to the beliefs of our ancestors. Early representations of Mary, Jesus and the Saints looked out over these early worshippers, helping to shape beliefs that were handed down through the ages. It is said that the artwork, the frescoes and mosaics were so beautiful that Mehmet the Conqueror ordered that they not be destroyed, but rather covered over.
Hagia Sophia as a museum belonged to everyone. The Christian mosaics were balanced with the huge Islamic shields. People of all faiths came to partake of the beauty and the history that enveloped it. A Byzantine church built over the ruins of a pagan temple converted to a mosque, finally a museum for all. But the Turkish government ended all that in July 2020.
News reports recently say that UNESCO is not happy and wants answers, if Hagia Sophia is to maintain its World Heritage Site designation. Because if it is now just another large mosque, with no nod to its history or its former standing, then it is just another large mosque in a city filled with huge mosques, some old and some brand new.
Of those who visited Hagia Sophia with us, a few prayed—there are separate areas for men and woman, and some men were praying in front of a wall, assuredly facing Mecca. Rings of lights and lanterns were placed throughout. Although they are indeed beautiful, they do not tell the story at all about Hagia Sophia.
For example, one enormous ring that naturally catches your eye is right under the major dome in the center. But when you focus on that ring of lights, you don’t look up. And when you don’t look up, you miss the four seraphim angel mosaics on the pendentives that carry the central dome of Hagia Sophia. For many years, they were covered with six to seven layers of plaster and, in at least one case, a metal face mask, thanks to the Ottoman victors when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and the church became a mosque. These seraphim, believed to have been made somewhere between 500-900, represent the four seraphim that guard Heaven.
Most of the people who entered into the Hagia Sophia behaved as though they were on holiday at a beachside resort. Children ran and played. People sat on the sidelines and against walls. There were a few, a very few, tour groups trying to make their way through the chaos. I saw no one with brochures or literature about Hagia Sophia. But I saw everyone with a camera, mostly posing for photos in front of rings of light, or taking selfies. While Hagia Sophia might have been at the beginning of mankind’s march towards a better, more civilized world, I have to wonder if the overabundance of selfies in what once was—and supposedly still is—a holy place is a particularly good sign for us as a civilization.
UNESCO, are you listening?