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The Hagia Sophia Should Remain a Beacon to All

On July 10th, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan undid the symbolic roots of his republic by declaring that the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Byzantine structure, would be converted from a museum to a mosque. The first Islamic service in the building is scheduled for July 24th.

The international response was a mix of shock, resignation, and near universal condemnation. Most official government statements were somewhere between the United States (“disappointed”) and Greece (an “open provocation to the civilized world”).

If the furor over a single museum strikes you as mystifying, consider the central role the Hagia Sophia has played for the last 1,500 years. Even from the beginning, it was far more than just a pile of brick and marble. It was a statement. A vision, both sacred and secular, for several different empires.

The Hagia Sophia was the brainchild of a unique figure in history. At birth, Justinian was a nobody among nobodies in a grindingly poor part of what is today North Macedonia. By his mid-40s, he was a Byzantine emperor. His appetites were large, his dreams larger. The man who knew what it was like to have nothing gave new meaning to the idea of luxury. For one memorable celebration, he spent almost two tons of gold on decorations.

Justinian had no time for small things. By the second year of his reign, he had decided to codify all of Roman law, founded several new cities, and had started construction on at least eight new churches.

Mosaic depicting Virgin Mary (centre); Justinian (left) with a model of the Hagia Sophia; Constantine (right) with a model of Constantinople

The money for all these projects inevitably came from the public. And by the fifth year of his reign, his subjects had had enough. Already upset by rampant corruption, an inefficient bureaucracy, and crushing taxes, they hit the boiling point when Justinian severely restricted public games. A mob tore through the streets, overwhelming the unprepared police forces. Several stores were set on fire, and the wind quickly spread the flames to a nearby hospital, which burned down with its patients inside. An inferno raged. For five long days, Constantinople burned.

By the time Justinian reasserted control, more than 30,000 citizens were dead, and perhaps a third of the city was a blackened shell. It looked as if some barbarian horde had sacked the capital. The fact that its own people had inflicted such a wound hovered like a black cloud over the streets.

Characteristically, Justinian saw a perfect opportunity within the ashes. This was a blank canvas on which to create a new city in his image. The transformation would begin with the cathedral. The original building, known simply as the Magna Ecclesia—the Great Church—had been built by a son of Constantine the Great in the fourth century, but had burned down a few decades later. Since it was a standard Roman basilica—a large hall with square walls and angled wooden roof—it had been fairly easy to rebuild along the same lines.

The Hagia Sophia, as depicted in an 1852 lithograph


But of course, Justinian had no intention of following the tired plans of an earlier age. This was a chance to remake the cathedral on a new scale, something worthy of the ages. It was to be nothing short of a revolution, equal parts art and architecture, the enduring grandeur of the emperor himself frozen in physical form.

Everything about this project was audacious, including his selection of architects. Instead of choosing a traditional builder, he picked two teachers who—like himself—had more vision than practical experience. This was a lifelong pattern with Justinian. He had a habit of plucking genius out of the common crush; his wife was a reformed prostitute, and his greatest generals were an elderly eunuch and a former bodyguard.

The emperor’s instructions to Isidore of Miletus, a physics teacher, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician, should have terrified them. They merely had to design and successfully build a church unlike anything else the world had seen. Sheer scale wasn’t enough—the empire was full of grand monuments and immense sculpture. This had to be something different, something fitting for the new golden age that was dawning. Expense wasn’t an issue, but speed was. Justinian was already in his 50s, and he didn’t intend to have some successor apply the final coat of paint and claim the project as his own.

This last bit was surely impossible. The large wonders built with the technology of the early sixth century could take lifetimes to construct. Medieval Notre Dame would take more than a hundred years to build, and the Duomo in Florence more than twice that.

Justinian’s architects came up with an audacious plan. Rejecting the classical basilica form that had been in use for three centuries, they decided instead to build the largest unsupported dome in the world and put it on a square floor plan. No architect had ever tried this before, for the excellent reason that a circular dome on a square base would either collapse in on itself or push the walls over. To prevent this, they ingeniously distributed the immense weight over a cascading series of half-domes and cupolas.

The Roman emperor stood halfway to heaven, so heaven and Earth were moved. The riches of the Mediterranean world were poured into the construction. Each day, new marvels appeared from a different corner of the empire. Gold from Egypt, delicately textured marble from Asia, and precious stones from north Africa. Antiquity served as a quarry: Even the fabled Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, donated a column.

To speed up construction, Isidore and Anthemius split their crew into two groups and raced them against each other. Spurred on by the presence of the emperor’s daily site visits, the two teams worked at breakneck speed. Five years, 10 months, and four days from the laying of the first stone, the great work was done.

On December 27th, 537, the church was officially dedicated as Hagia Sophia—the Divine Wisdom, an allusion to Christ. Stepping through the great imperial doors into the vast interior for the first time, Justinian was overwhelmed, struck by a vision of heaven made real in every graceful curve and sweeping arch. The cavernous dome rose 18 stories above the ground, spacious enough for the Statue of Liberty to fit inside, with six feet to spare between the tip of her torch and the ceiling. Around its base, builders had placed windows lined with gold. As light flooded into the building, the dome itself would appear to hover on a sea of light, suspended, as one stupefied observer wrote, “as if from heaven on a golden chain.”

The nearly four acres of ceiling space were covered with glittering mosaics, and a massive 50-foot iconostasis of solid silver was hung at the front, engraved with images of Mary, Jesus, and the saints. Beyond lay the high altar, sheltering an unrivaled collection of relics, from the hammer and nails of the Passion to the swaddling clothes of Christ. Even the wood above the great imperial door was unlike any in the world—composed, it was said, from an ancient fragment of Noah’s Ark. After Justinian had taken a long moment to observe all this, those closest heard him whisper, “Solomon, I have surpassed you.”

There was no building like it in the world, nor would there be for a thousand years, until Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi built his Duomo with a larger dome. Few could enter such a space and remain unmoved. When a visiting Russian delegation heard a mass inside the cathedral, members famously wrote back to their monarch, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth.”

It was easier to believe it was heaven. The monarch converted and the Russian Orthodox church was born.

The Hagia Sophia was the heart of Byzantium. From the time of its construction, there was hardly a major event in the millennium-long history of the Eastern Roman Empire that wasn’t in some way connected to it. Every Byzantine emperor—with the notable exception of the last—was crowned at its high altar. To have the cathedral was to have Constantinople and its empire. To lose it was to lose everything.

Portion of 13th-century Deesis mosaic

Even when Byzantium was dying, the Hagia Sophia remained a beacon. Inside was a treasure trove of art assembled through nine centuries of imperial patronage. Its mosaics—most famously the Deesis in one of the upper galleries—anticipated the humanism of the Renaissance by more than a century. Crusaders stared in awe, barbarians gawked, and civilized rulers tried to copy it. Its domed shape was echoed a thousand times in miniature throughout the Christian and Islamic worlds. Countless mosques and churches still bear its reflected form.

In 1453, the long pageant of the Eastern Roman Empire came to an end. The Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror earned his nickname by taking the city by storm. The Hagia Sophia, sheltering many of the city’s terrified citizens, suffered the fate of all of Constantinople’s churches. It was thoroughly plundered; crosses were demolished or replaced by crescents, altars and icons were destroyed and those who had taken refuge inside were killed or enslaved.

Mehmet didn’t just want to destroy, however. He wanted to build. Islam had triumphed over Christianity and a new world order had dawned. He personally oversaw the conversion of the Hagia Sophia, announcing a sea change in history. The crowning jewel of Christendom became the great imperial mosque of the Muslim world.

It remained so for nearly 500 years. At its height, Ottoman power surged through the Balkans and reached the walls of Vienna. It seemed as if all of Europe might fall. But Vienna held. And by the 17th century, the Ottomans entered a long, slow decline. The once proud Muslim state became the “Sick Man of Europe,” propped up by stronger Christian, European nations.

The centuries of impotence and humiliation culminated in the complete collapse of the Ottoman empire in the 1920s. Under the leadership of a charismatic nationalist named Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Caliphate was abolished and a republic was founded on a Western, secular model. Atatürk’s modern state was an explicit rejection of the Islamic theocratic system, and he needed a powerful symbol to drive this point home. Once again, the Hagia Sophia was pressed into service. In 1931, Islamic services were stopped. Three years later, it officially opened as a museum. A quintessential icon of the militant, Islamic past was now a symbol of modern Turkey.

Now, 86 years later, the tide has turned again. Atatürk’s secular legacy must be discarded, so Erdoğan turns to the Hagia Sophia.

The great masterpiece of the Byzantine world, built on a fault line, yet still standing after nearly 15 centuries, casts a long shadow. There are 30 major churches named after it in more than a dozen countries. It was always the dome—still so visible on Istanbul’s skyline—that most inspired observers, going all the way back to Justinian’s contemporaries. As Garo Paylan, a member of Turkey’s parliament, put it succinctly, “The Hagia Sophia was a symbol of our rich history. Its dome was big enough for all.” How regrettable that such a vast space would be co-opted for narrow ends.



Lars Brownworth is the author of Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization.


  1. I’m not surprised that Erdogan has decided to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. As Erdogan and his goons abandon Turkey’s secular traditions, I think we should expect similar actions from Erdogan as he attempts to curry favor and shore up the support of the Islamists who keep him in power.

    Apparently the Christian mosaics will all be covered, five times a day, during prayer services. Great.

    The interesting question to me is this: what can be done about it? Russia, Greece, the US; many countries (or their politicians, at least) are angered and saddened by this move. How, then, to deal with Erdogan in the aftermath of his decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque?

  2. What? You want me to go beat him up for you? It’s in his country let him do what he wants. People will either raise up a stink or they won’t.

  3. That sounds vaguely threatening, though. Even imperialistic.

    Turkey is a sovereign nation. Erdogan and the people of Turkey can do whatever they please with the building.

  4. A few years ago we had a ‘situation’ in Oz where a couple of our citizens were up for the death penalty in Indonesia for drug trafficking. There was an enormous outcry with much vitriol directed at the Indonesian government to save them by commuting the punishment to a life sentence as the young men involved had clearly repented. Our government desperately acted to avert it but the offense caused by the publics demands & catcalling of ‘uncivilised savagery’ most certainly hardened the Indo Gov’s resolve to a widespread heartbreaking ending where the men were executed via firing squad.
    Let’s not lose our heads here.

  5. The Hagia Sophia, sheltering many of the city’s terrified citizens, suffered the fate of all of Constantinople’s churches. It was thoroughly plundered; crosses were demolished or replaced by crescents, altars and icons were destroyed and those who had taken refuge inside were killed or enslaved.

    This cannot be accurate. Islam is the “religion of peace” as everyone knows, and so there must have been some other reason to kill these people. Obviously the author is in error. I hope that someone might correct him lest he be accused of Islamophobia…

  6. Fortunately, I think the answer to this question is a simple one: Do nothing.

  7. Erdogan is nothing if not a political realist who is riding the tiger of his times, in the same way that many Muslim rulers are throughout the world. In my region. in places like Malaysia and Indonesia, fundamentalist religious voices are getting progressively louder and more insistent. The once secular Indonesian state now permits Sharia Law in the province of Aceh after a 30 year insurgency…

    Rulers who do not listen to the fundamentalists do so at their peril, or have to resort to the kind of determined brutality that a certain Assad is trying out in Syria, with some success. But he is pretty much the last secular Muslim dictator still standing.

    The slow motion collapse of the traditionally modern notion of the separation within the nation state of the secular and the sacerdotal, that inspired Ataturk, is most noticeable within Islam, but by no means exclusively.

    Over the last 30-40 years there has been a noticeable attitudinal ‘tightening’ and sectarianism within not just traditional religious sensibility, but even the secular Humanist Ascendancy in the West.

    Each day, the postmodernist trained humanist apparatchiks from universitiland look ever more like puritanical, heresy sniffing, and ultra Orthodox ideological authoritarians that don’t tolerate heterodoxy anymore than the Counter Reformational Church did…or the Protestant iconoclasts who smashed ‘idolatrous graven images’ in churches. For them the debate is over and the only question now is the enforcement of its writ. They are no more immune to the trend than anyone else.

    The once rational, nuanced and consequential ‘Enlightenment’ ideology of responsible liberty and rights with moral agency has quietly disappeared in favour of the same unconditional fundamentalism as everyone else.

    Even the dear old Buddhists have recently been getting into the act with some particularly robust behaviour towards the Rohingya Muslims in Western Myanmar…and the Hindu Indian community in Sri Lanka…

    So when we tut tut about naughty president Erdogan throwing the local clerics a bit of something to keep them out of his hair, spare a thought for the women in The West, who are now having to compete on the sports field again men, because their sports organizations feel they need to humour the Tranzis…who make a Muslim mob look positively civilized…

  8. To me, modern Turkey has always seemed like Janus, with the Western part of the country looking to Europe for inclusion, and the Eastern part looking to extend its influence as a regional power. It seems that the veto Greece continues to exercise in relation to further Turkish integration into Europe has had the long term consequence of aiding the ascendancy of the Eastern faction. Changes to the status quo have been in evidence for some time, the new status of the Hagia Sophia is yet another indicator of a sea change which has been brewing for some time.

  9. Post of the week.

    It is not an accident that our progressive left admire islamists.

  10. Very enlightening and clear painting of backgrounds around that Hagia Sophia (first time for me to dish out a heart for an article here)… In the time this splendid new symbol was constructed, somewhat more to the East the giant Buddha Sculptures were erected, destroyed by the Taliban some 20 yrs ago, coincidentally? Or just another symptom of Huntington’s General Clash?. Some here think, Turkey is a sovereign nation ,as all nations are, so can do what they want. True of course, but still…quite threatening , unheimisch all this I think.

    Hagia Sophia, so I learn here, means Holy Wisdom. Centre of civilised and Christian world, at the borders of the Imperium only barbaric tribes and folks. In my youth, I still had the infantile and safe idea that the UN building in NY (UNESCO already stated, I read somehwere, to help rebuilding the Buddha statues, but…??) was kind of Hagia Sofia, the centre, from which the rest of the world would be conquered (culturally, technically, market-wise) and slowly including all other territories. This time, I realise now, has ended, definitively…

    P.S.: Huntington about Turkey: can be categorised as a loner’s nation, like Ethiopia, on its own and separate due to the heritage of Ataturk, who wanted to make a Western , secular nation of Turkey, and thus made a museum of the Hagia Sophia, however, this has been turned back now by Erdogan, is Turkey still a loner now? Or part of the big Islam family worldwide ???

  11. So goes the Hagia Sophia as goes our Christendom. Reconverting this grand old church back into a mosque is symbolic…a marker…of the decline of the West. We do not believe in, much less practice muscular Christianity and thus we whine and Islam exults. With the demographics of Europa moving sharply away from it ethnic roots, we look to see Notre Dame made a Mosque in a century or two. What to stop it?
    The West is in sharp cultural decline. We no longer have confidence in ourselves or our history which is now hateful to behold by all right thinking people. “Things fall apart…the center will not hold”.

  12. Fundamentally, this is the most important point. His actions may be uncouth from our perspective, but it’s none of our damn business. He’s not doing something that is threatening anyone outside of his country. Nor is this something that can’t be undone in the future.

  13. I have no issue with Turkey making decisions re; The Sofia…just as I would have no issues with whatever Israeli decided to do with The Dome of the Rock…

    Of course we all know the hypocrisy at work here and that’s my point.

  14. As a student, I visited the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. In that last one, I had to leave my sandals outside, unlike in the first. In the NLs, I never set a foot in a mosque, why so easily abroad, but wouldn’t dare to in my own country?? More polarisation right here around?
    Something I still remember from that visit: not one girl or woman with headscarf, I was invited quite often by people to their homes, and heard that their muslim belief was only a thin veil, not something deep or real, they liked the beatles better and wanted to belong to Europe. I wonder how all this is now.

  15. There is something to that, at least if we look at the so-called “worship” in modern “progressive” churches, according to whom Jesus was, essentially, a socialist social worker with a bag of party tricks, as per the Church of England.

    Do you think these guys


    Take seriously what Jesus said, or even believe in God? I am no fan of Islam, but their observation that most progressive churches are de facto social clubs for atheists is spot on. For good and ill, perhaps mostly for ill, Islam takes religion seriously. “Progressive” churches do not.

    As Eddie Izzard pointed out, there is no religious prosecution in England since the Church’s dogma seems to be “have cake and tea once every two weeks with the vicar”. What sort of prosecution could they have? Cake or death?

    Which explains part of the fact that so many, in England, convert to Islam. Part of it, perhaps, is by petty criminals claiming “victim status”, or, the reverse, being told by the Imam that, by being Muslim, they are now part of the elect, despite being career petty criminals.

    But I suspect most of these conversions are the result of a genuine spiritual crisis. If someone is having such a crisis, is on the verge of suicide from despair, to whom will we go to find a meaning to life? His C-of-E joke of a vicar, who gives lectures claiming gay marriages are, somehow, something Jesus would have approved of, and is, everybody suspects, just going through the motions because he doesn’t actually believe in God?

    Or will he go to an Imam, or a Catholic priest, or even a traditional church of African immigrants - to those who take their religion seriously?


    In latest “progressive” nod, the Church of England will probably ditch bishop’s mitres because they look silly.

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