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The Hagia Sophia: Where Christianity and Islam Coexist — and Clash

The Hagia Sophia -- Madonna with roundels, Muhammad & Allah. Photo by BF Newhall

In the Hagia Sophia, Christianity's Madonna and Child are flanked by roundels with Arabic script bearing the names of Muhammad and Allah. The rondels were added to the basilica when it became a mosque after the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. All photos by BF Newhall 2009

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

As a religion writer, I’ve got plenty of respect for Islam as well as for the many (friendly, smart, lovable, cool, inspiring) Muslims I’ve met on the religion beat over the years. So, trust me. This is not a rant against Islam or Muslims.

It’s about how it feels to have one’s culture and faith obliterated by someone else’s culture and faith.

The Hagia Sophia, now a museum, draws tourists from all over the world. Photo by BF Newhall.

The Hagia Sophia, now a museum, draws tourists from all over the world.

I got a close-up look at this when I entered the magnificent Hagia Sofia for the first time during a trip to Istanbul in 2009. Completed in 537 by order of the Emperor Justinian, this glorious Byzantine basilica was the focal point of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for nearly a millennium.

The Hagia Sophia’s status as a Christian church came to an abrupt end, however, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453 and converted the basilica into a mosque soon after.

I am fully aware that Western Christians have done their share of imposing their culture, technology and religion on the peoples they have conquered or overwhelmed. I know, just for starters, all about how the Parthenon, a temple built to honor the Pagan goddess Athena, was taken over and turned into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Still, I see now that I’ve understood religious oppression only intellectually all these years. As a Christian living in a mostly Christian country, I’ve never really known how it feels to have one’s faith and its most cherished symbols obliterated by a colonizing force.

Until I stepped inside the Hagia Sophia.

It was dark in there. The few remaining Christian mosaics – including those of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Saint John Chrysostom – were nearly invisible.

Not at all invisible, however, were eight huge round black disks, each one nearly 25 feet across and each one emblazoned with — to me unintelligible — Arabic calligraphy. Constructed of wood and leather, the disks were conspicuously placed, high on the columns supporting the basilica’s massive dome.

The back side of the Hagia Sophia rondels are roughly finished. Photo by BF Newhall.

The back sides of the Arabic rondels are unfinished.

The disks – also known as medallions or roundels — felt like giant, flashy billboards for Islam. I’ve got God on my side and you don’t, they seemed to argue. It didn’t help that, when I climbed to the upstairs balconies and stood behind the disks, I could see their crude wooden backsides.

To my Muslim friends no doubt the calligraphy on those medallions would feel holy and beautiful. The inscriptions represent, after all, the names of Allah, Muhammad, Islam’s first four caliphs, and Muhammad’s two grandsons. (Peace be upon them!)

But as a Christian standing in what had once been a magnificent church, I could not feel the holiness of those huge disks. I felt bullied by them.

It’s been hundreds of years since the Hagia Sofia was seized and turned into a mosque, but on that day in 2009, it felt like the desecration had happened yesterday.

The Hagia Sophia is a museum now, and I hear there’s a campaign afoot to restore the basilica as a Christian church.

Two rondels hang high on the walls of the ancient basilica. By BF Newhall

Two of the eight rondels that hang high on the walls of the ancient basilica, built by Emporer Justinian in 537.

Part of me would love to see those eight in-your-face disks go away. But another part of me knows better. Just as Jerusalem has become a holy spot for Christians, Muslims and Baha’is as well as Jews. So has the Hagia Sophia come to belong to Muslims as well as Christians.

Back home now, sitting here in my writing room, I study my photos of the offending medallions. I hunt down more pictures of them on line. I ponder their elegant, swooping lines. I open my mind – I try to – to the beauty of the calligraphy.

And after a while I see that, yes, indeed, they are beautiful. Like the Christian icons that preceded them, I find the boldface disks with the strange writing on them to be windows into the sacred. Soon I am scouring the Web for more photos. My eyes follow and are amazed by their complex, mysterious lines.

I wonder, the next time I enter the Hagia Sophia, will I feel oppressed by those medallions – or touched? I honestly don’t know.


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Comments

  1. On the greek island of Crete, I once visited a place on the northern shore side. It had a beautiful little harbour. At one side of this harbour, I saw a white building, judging from its architecture, it should have been a mosque. It turned out to be an old mosque, which had been turned into a discotheque for quite some time. Immediately, I had a feeling of disgrace, of offense to God, since it was his house. In Germany, nowadays, more and more churches are being closed down. After a ceremony of deconsecration they are sold. Some of them are used as cafes, some as libraries, but some are bought by muslim immigrants and turned into mosques. Though I still experience an uneasy feeling, comparable to the one, you had in the Hagia Sophia, I can still accept more easily a usage as mosque, since then, the building continues to be a house of God.

    • Yes, it’s sad that churches in Europe are losing their congregations. (Where do people congregate soulfully these days? Do they at all?) But it’s one thing for a church to be peacefully sold to a Muslim congregation, and quite another for it to be taken forcibly as the Hagia Sophia was. But that was long, long ago and it’s definitely time to let go of any hostility over that ancient conquest.

  2. I think you should visit Spain too and see how they changed mosques to church. Go to Sevilla and see how they converted mosque to Church. You won’t see anything about Islam in this church as there were no respect to other religion not only Islam also Judaisim at that time. Read how Isabela tortured Jews and Muslims to convert. Actually they tortured more Jews as they were afraid of ottoman. Lots of Jews immigrated Ottoman to live their religion freely. You are just missing that ottoman showed respect to preserve mosaics of Christianity in Haghia Sophia. For that age it was amazing fact. In the history, people unfortunately used religion to conquer and get power. Fortunately, current Pope is trying his best to make peace between religions which are really similar. I hope it will work and one day we will learn all of us just a human. If we won’t be offended of these conversions like mosque to Church and church to mosque or other things, we put one more step to make peace in the world. It was a historical fact of that time and we are living in 21st century. We just should remember or learn what humanity did in the past in order not to do same mistakes. Or we could learn wisdom from historical facts too.

    • Thanks so much for this. I didn’t know about the mosques to churches in Spain, but it’s not surprising given that Isabella and Ferdinand were so forceful in their desire to banish Judaism and Islam. And yes it is remarkable that so much of the Christian art in the Hagia Sophia was preserved. In this essay, I was trying describe the gap between my ideals — which I share with Pope Francis — and my actual gut reaction to the Hagia Sophia. I think that tells us how much work we all have to do attain the wisdom you talk about — as individuals and as societies. Thanks for the info about Spain. I’d love to travel there and see those former mosques for myself.

  3. I’m not even a christian, or an adherent of any religion and I can completely understand the feeling those signs convey. I felt the same when I visited. It’s a beautiful building and these giant arabic signs look so out of place. I don’t see the beauty in them. Walking through the building admiring the massive columns and the ancient stonework, each cut and placed by hand by christians so long ago I couldn’t help but think about the slaughter and the terror they must have experienced when the city fell. Those signs are a massive in your face reminder of their conquest and subjugation. It would be no different from giant signs written in Hebrew being hung inside the Al Aqsa mosque. It’s a clear insult and slap in the face to the conquered.

    • When I visited, the mood was one of “let’s get along.” The Hagia Sophia was being presented as a meeting place of differing traditions. So . . . human beings are capable of civility. I don’t know what the mood is in Turkey right now. I fear that it has deteriorated where interfaith acceptance is concerned.

  4. I was surprised by this stance. As a Christian having lived in Christian countries and having visited Hagia Sophia, I was positively impressed by the mix of religions, as a symbol of multiculturalism. I was surprised to learn that although they conquered Constantinople and made Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the Muslims, as “barbarians” described by the Christians, did not destroy the Christian fresques that already existed, but kept them, especially the central Virgin Mary (which they do not honor in their faith) and simply added the rondels. I came here in the search of an explanations for the reasons they have kept them with their 15th century mentality and even while the church served as a mosque. Unfortunately, the article seems a bit nostalgic and just to transmit mixed feelings. Personally, ai suggest changing the title of your article, as it raises false expectations from my point of view. I am happy I managed to see the church myself and suggest anyone who can to do the same and get a feel for themselves.

    • Teodora. You are quite right, the Hagia Sophia as it stands now is an admirable attempt at interfaith understanding. My higher self feels exactly as you do. But what I found interesting when I visited there was that — despite my years an an interfaith religion writer, and despite the fact that I was including some wonderful Muslim voices in my book (Wrestling with God) — despite all that, I still experienced feelings of oppression at the sight of those rondels. That’s what my post is about — how difficult it is to overcome our fears of the “other.” That said, it’s also true that civilizations (along with their religions) do overrun one another. Christianity ultimately supplanted paganism in Europe, and the Muslim Ottoman Empire suppressed Christian Byzantium. This is sad and painful . . . Meanwhile, I too would like to know more about the history of the preservation of the Christian artifacts in Hagia Sophia; I couldn’t locate that info when I wrote the piece. Mary . . , btw, is mentioned in the Qur’an.

    • Matt Schilling says:

      Teodora says Muslims “do not honor” Mary “in their faith”. This is incorrect. Mary is the ONLY woman named in the Koran. In fact, her name is even the title of one of the chapters in the Koran. The Koran teaches the immaculate conception of Mary, the virgin birth of Jesus, and that Mary went bodily up into heaven.

  5. Hi Barbara,
    A very interesting article, one that has left me a little confused.
    I’m trying to comprehend how the medallions in Hagia Sophia are offensive.
    When Istanbul/Constantinople was conquered, so too were the churches in the region, as is the case with many places of worship around the world in invasion.
    We’ve seen similar conversions across the world over the centuries, like the Spain’s Cathedral of Cordoba – once a mosque, a number of Buddhist temples in Vietnam being transformed into churches, and of course, Greece’s iconic Parthenon, once standing in tribute to Goddess Athena, later transformed into a church.
    I visited Hagia Sophia last year in my travels, and was touched by the beauty and history behind the building. Does it also offend you that the building also served as a Roman Catholic church for 50-odd years?
    Today, the building stands as a secular building, not a place of worship for the muslims or the christians, but instead a museum celebrating a rich and vibrant history.
    Why you felt “bullied”, I’m failing to understand. I do not think the medallions hanging were “flashy billboards for Islam”, but instead a tribute to the 500-odd years it served as a mosque – much like the mosaics in tribute to emperors and empresses, the virgin Mary and baby Jesus, and St John.
    Perhaps I’m missing something, being an atheist myself, and not having that religious connection you have with the building.
    But, as I walked through Hagia Sophia, I felt a sense of appreciation for the history of the building, and the fact that the building today stands as a museum in a secular country, celebrating eras of Christianity and Islam in that very building – two religions which really aren’t that different when you look closely at them.
    The two religions do coexist in Hagia Sophia, and this is something for all visitors to appreciate – not something to be offended by. Ease up 🙂

    • Adam, You are right on, of course. The point of view that you take is one that my more rational side also takes: The Hagia Sophia at the moment is an wonderful attempt to honor the various traditions that have taken expression in that building over the centuries. And that was the point of my essay — the battle between my rational, reasonable, open-minded self and the self that identifies in a deep emotional way with the Christian tradition.
      I wrote that piece as a person who is part of a majority religion in a pluralistic country — the US. As such I’ve never experienced being “conquered” and oppressed by a foreign culture. But being inside the Hagia Sophia affected me in an emotional — and, yes, irrational — way. I cop to that because the experience gave me a hint — just the barest hint — of what it’s like to be conquered and one’s culture threatened with obliteration.
      That was the point of the essay; my point was not to dis Islam or the Muslim conquerors of yore. In fact, if you look around my website, you’ll see that I’ve written about Islam and Muslims in very supportive ways. Check out http://barbarafalconernewhall.com/2009/03/06/the-muslim-next-door/ Also http://barbarafalconernewhall.com/2012/04/02/a-muslim-woman-with-a-story-to-tell/
      I also have an interview with a wonderful atheist in my upcoming book, “Wrestling with God,” btw. If you liked the nuanced pluralistic mood of the Hagia Sophia, you might well like my book.

  6. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    This comment came as an email from Catherine:

    The Church of Saint Sofia (or Hagia Sofia as you call it) is a church deeply associated to the Christians but especially to the Orthodox Christians. Your article was really interesting. Thank you. However, after an argument with my teacher of religion, who stated that the medallions should be removed from this holy church, I made a research myself on Saint Sofia and so I came to read your article.

    In fact, Saint Sofia has always been one of the greatest symbols of Orthodox Christians and even represents our past glory: Ancient Greek culture and civilisation survived through Byzantium, making Saint Sofia the greatest “outcome” of the fusion of ancient Greek civilisation and the Christian religion. As a result, my teacher thought that the Arabic medallions should be removed from the church.

    To an extent I agree with him. However, Saint Sofia is right now a museum, and so — although these symbols [of Islam should not have been placed] into one of the greatest churches in the world — I think that it is not an offense to our religion if they simply co-exist. Something should be done, however, so that they wouldn’t hide Christian paintings.

    P.S Hagia Sofia it is how we spell Αγία Σοφία in Greek, which means Saint Sofia (Sofia = wisdom). And in fact this church is devoted to the wisdom of the speech of Christ. So the name of the church is Saint Sofia and not Hagia Sofia.

    Honestly thanks for your article and for reading my message. Please it would be of great help if you could precise your point of view. Right now I feel terribly confused.

    Catherine

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Here is the reply that I emailed to Catherine — who didn’t say where in the world she lives.

      Thank you for your very interesting email.

      As you can tell by my post, I have mixed feelings about the Arabic rondels at the Church of Saint Sophia. But I also think it’s OK to have mixed feelings. It isn’t necessary to be certain in one’s opinions, because so often humans experience conflicting feelings. Our challenge, as humans, often is to find ways to hold and live with our conflicting feelings.

      If I have to take a stand on the rondels, it would be — they need to stay there, but perhaps placed differently so that any Christian symbols or imagery can be seen.

      The reason I think — and feel — this way is that I know that so many Muslims have come to have strong feelings for the church as a (former) place of Muslim worship. I have to respect their feelings.

      I also, personally, respect the building as one that traces the history of the people of Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. As such, it should remain as it is — with the rondels.

      Though I might wish it were still the Orthodox Church it originally was, I have to accept the reality that it has become more than that — a place sacred to both Christians and Muslims.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful letter.

  7. Mary Kibbe says:

    I was there on my recent vacation. The history is very interesting and the mosque is just beautiful.

  8. barbara- i think that the clash of religions has and is been going on very insidiously in the u.s. especially with the leakage of secular policy into religious tolerance, and then on the flip side, with those same secular forces becoming the strong arm of religious repression and oppression. Ironically, like it or not, we are becoming creatures akin to the Dan Quaylian aliens – a society battling for its moral center.
    Murphy Brown and Howard Johnson were right. we are living in a age where we have both Republicans and Democrats serving up what they believe is the “right thing to do,” often in the name of religion or humanity. The left and right governmental forces, for example, have for years been in cahoots with the Catholic Healthcare Networks who receive both tax free financing, tax free status, which george bush often praised as faith based leadership and which president obama tacitly supports in his own community organization groups.
    Then on the flip side, you see government persecution of the Scouts AND the threat of taking away its 501c3 status because of its anti gay stance. This despite the fact that the scouts are 70% sponsored by religious organizations primarily the Mormon and Catholic Churches. those religious entities are against homosexuality at least in their teachings if not in their actual tolerance of alternative lifestyles as they often proclaim these days.
    The water gets further muddied when you see the Episcopal Church vote to let gays be ordained as ministers and to use the judicial system as a way to protect those rights.
    Finally, the decision by the IRS to discriminate in the conferring of 501C4 status against tea party groups who naturally portray themselves” as god fearing christians rising up against the system”, to me at least indicates that there is a war on between the secular but religious “the-government-knows-what-is-right” coalition and the more distrusting almost anarchical libertarian leaning but again religious and god fearing tea party.
    But unlike in the Middle East, or even Europe, the U.S. religious wars are a cauldron of both secular and religious interests all boiling in the same pot.
    I went to both istanbul and jerusalem in 2011 and i was more struck actually by the lack of interest overall in the “religion and the icons” and much more interest, i felt, in people being seen with one another and facebooking and taking pictures on their cell phones and yapping with one another.
    I sense a real boredom actually among the citizenry with religion and a much higher emphasis being placed on material well being. When in the holy cit of Jerusalem, we got a sense of this when my wife’s cousin, an owner of a large cosmetics company in Israel who frequently brings VIPs to Jerusalem, ushered us past a waiting line of perhaps 300 people. The look of jealousy on people’s faces and then the pictures that started flashing like paparazis. It didn’t appear to me they were interested in the King David Museum.
    a week after that the Seal team killed Osama Bin Laden. We were in Crete at the time and the tourists were busy taking pictures of the camels.

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