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Hagia Sophia: The Grim History

Hagia Sophia: The Grim History


The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey is hands down the most awe-inspiring place I've ever been. The structure itself is huge and stunning and so very, very old--an incredibly powerful trifecta that moved me to tears more than once during my visit. 

Beyond the structure itself is the sacredness of the space. I'm not religious, but I'm an archaeologist of ritual for a reason.


The Hagia Sophia has been and remains holy to such a large portion of the world. It was a cathedral for almost a thousand years, and then a mosque for almost five hundred years after that. 

Today, the Hagia Sophia is a museum, though there is an increasing push from both the Christian and Muslim populations to reconsecrate the museum into a place of worship once more.


But the beauty, sanctity, antiquity, and scale of the Hagia Sophia are only part (though admittedly a large part) of why it's such an impactful place. 

The walls of the Ayasofya, as the Turkish call her, have borne witness to immense history, including centuries of tragedy, bloodshed, and conquest. 

It is crucial to have an understanding of the historical context of the places that you visit in order to fully appreciate and engage with those places (that's the archaeologist in me speaking).

Don't get me wrong--you'll be blown away by the Hagia Sophia no matter what. But your visit will be so enhanced by knowing some of the fascinating history that has taken place within its walls. 


So here it is: a brief and grisly history of the Hagia Sophia. Let me be super clear: this is not a complete history. I included only the things that I find fascinating and a few points that need to be included so you have a good overview. 

The Hagia Sophia was built in the year 537 AD, making it nearly 1500 years old. As an American, this is hard for me to even wrap my head around. The USA isn't even 250 years old (though of course people have been here for thousands of years). 

It was built as a church in the heart of Constantinople (modern Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

You can think of the Byzantine Empire as the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, though it survived a thousand years longer than the western part. 

In 1054, the Great Schism divided the Eastern Orthodox church from the Roman Catholic church.

Many factors led to the division, but the Hagia Sophia was the site of the excommunication of Constantinople's Patriarch Michael I Cerularius in retribution for his closure of Latin churches in Constantinople (that act having taken place in retribution for a previous act, and so on).

The excommunication of Cerularius is considered the first major act that eventually led toward total schism.

In 1202, Pope Innocent III called the Fourth Crusade with the goal of reconquering Jerusalem from the Muslims. 

What does this have to do with the Hagia Sophia, a church in the middle of the Christian-controlled Byzantine Empire?

Well, it's a long story. 

The gist of it is that the Crusaders made a deal with the Byzantine prince Alexios Angelos to help his father, who had been deposed as Emperor, back in control.

In 1203, the prince was crowned co-emperor Alexios IV Angelos, but that didn't last long. Within six months, he was in turn deposed and murdered. 

This, of course, meant that the funds to the Crusaders stopped

The Crusaders turned their frustration at this onto the city of Constantinople, brutally sacking the city

The Hagia Sophia was sacked and desecrated. It was at this time that the majority of the wealth of Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia was stolen, though there was certainly notable looting later as well.

Side note: Enrico Dandolo, the blind Venetian doge who led the sack of Constantinople, was interred in the Hagia Sophia, though his tomb was destroyed when the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. If you visit, see if you can spot the cenotaph (which is a marker honoring someone buried elsewhere) bearing his name. 


The Crusaders set up a Latin Empire in Constantinople, marking the beginning of 57 years of Latin occupation

The Hagia Sophia became a Roman Catholic Cathedral during the period of Latin occupation between 1204-1261.

Resistance remained outside of Constantinople in unconquered parts of the Byzantine Empire, and in 1261 Constantinople was recaptured. The Hagia Sophia was restored as an Orthodox church.

In 1453, a 21-year old destroyed the Byzantine Empire.

Or, at least, he led the army that did so. His name was Mehmet II, and he was the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The use of huge guns and cannon was a turning point in military history.

You may have heard him called Mehmet the Conqueror, which is a name he earned for his victory. Prior to the fall of Constantinople, Mehmet II had been considered a pretty weak and ineffective leader due to his youth and inexperience--so much so that his father, who had abdicated in favor of Mehmet II, had been forced to retake the sultanate more than once before his death. 

Side note: you can see the tomb of Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror in Istanbul at the Fatih Mosque--just be respectful of the worshippers. Side side note: in Turkish, Sultan Mehmet II is called Fatih Sultan Mehmet, and 'fatih' is the Turkish word for 'conqueror.'

Conquest is a nasty business, and the Sultan's conquest of Constantinople was no exception. 

The women, children, elderly, sick, and wounded of Constantinople sought refuge in the Hagia Sophia, hoping they would be safe within its holy walls.

The conquering army were allowed three days in which to pillage and loot anything they wanted--after which anything left unclaimed would be taken by the Sultan.

The huge, beautiful, richly decorated Hagia Sophia, as you doubtless guessed, proved irresistible prey for the troops. The soldiers sacked and desecrated the Hagia Sophia along with the rest of the city. 

Those who had sheltered within the Hagia Sophia became spoils of war.

Many were slaughtered outright, especially the sick, wounded, and elderly.

The young boys were enslaved and sold.  

And the women and girls? Well, their fate was the same horror that women and girls have always faced during wartime and conquest. 

When the carnage had at last drawn to an end, Mehmet the Conqueror began its conversion to a mosque. 

Anything portable had already been taken by the conquering army, but many of the riches were more permanent. The beautiful mosaics of Jesus and myriad saints were covered in plaster, the altar and bells were destroyed while equally beautiful Islamic features were added. 

The mosaics have since been restored.

The mosaics have since been restored.

The Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for nearly five hundred years. 

In 1931, the mosque was closed until 1935, when it was opened again as a museum--quite an interesting move.

It was the work of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

If you visit Turkey, you will certainly hear about Atatürk, who is revered to this day by many Turkish people--to the extent that I personally know more than one person with Atatürk's signature tattooed on their body. 

You'll see his portrait in nearly every restaurant and home, you'll see that same signature as a bumper sticker on people's cars. 

Why is he so beloved?

Well, he founded the Republic of Turkey, bringing an end to the Ottoman Empire. He revolutionized the nation in every meaningful way, secularizing and modernizing it along the way. 

I won't go too deep into Atatürk's reforms here since this article focuses on the Hagia Sophia, but I wanted to give enough context that the transformation of the Hagia Sophia made sense.

By converting this glorious cultural landmark from an active place of worship to a museum, a place of memory, he was sending a clear message--to his people and to the rest of the world--about the direction in which Turkey was headed.

Today, there are calls to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a place of worship. These come alongside pushes by Turkish leadership to return to a more religious way of life--pushes that are highly controversial, as evidenced by the vigorous protests that occur with each new piece of legislation. 

For now, though, the Hagia Sophia remains a museum, accessible and open to the public.

The history of the Hagia Sophia is clear upon her walls. You can look around and see mosaics of saints and saviors alongside beautiful calligraphic Islamic inscriptions.

It is a tragic, beautiful, sacred, moving space. 

Pro tip: if you want to avoid crowds, I'd recommend arriving half an hour before it opens so you're the first one in. 


Andrea, Alfred J., ed.     1997     The Capture of Constantinople: The Hystoria Constantinopolitana of Gunther of Pairis. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.

Crowley, Roger     2013     1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West. Hyperion, New York.

Goffman, Daniel     2002     The Ottoman Empire and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 

Nicol, Donald     1972     The Last Centuries of Byzantium. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Runciman, Steven     1965     The Fall of Constantinople. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


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