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  • Jul 16, 2020

What Will Happen to the Byzantine Mosaics in Hagia Sophia?

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Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia was officially reverted from a museum into a mosque on July 10, paving the way for the possible re-concealment of the Byzantine mosaics inside the 1,500-year-old church-turned-mosque-turned-museum.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s address last Friday regarding the re-sacralization of the 6th-century UNESCO World Heritage site came after Turkey's Council of State dismantled a 1934 decree issued by the Republic's founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to preserve the structure as a museum. The reclassification transforms the interior of Hagia Sophia into an exclusive place for Muslim worship, with its first prayers set to begin on July 24.

As reported by Reuters, a spokesperson for Turkey’s ruling AK Party suggested that curtains or lasers would be utilized only during prayers to cover Christian emblems such as ornate icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and portraits of saints and angels. At other times, the iconographic art will remain uncovered. As a mosque, the former museum will be open to all visitors, with free admission. However, details regarding how the curtains or lasers will be implemented have not been announced. 

Several other former churches in Turkey have had their architecture and imagery significantly obscured in their conversion into mosques in the last decade. In a smaller, 13th-century Hagia Sophia, located in the northern city of Trabzon, also formerly a church, mosque, and eventually a museum from 1964 until its re-conversion into a mosque in 2013, the building’s domes were covered with a flat ceiling and a doorway, while the murals are obscured by curtains and the mihrab illuminated with LED lights. A similar fate befell the Hagia Sophia in İznik in 2011 when AKP officials converted the church into a mosque without notifying the local government despite it drawing a significant number of tourists to the area.

For Istanbul's Hagia Sophia, the concealment of iconographic art, however it is achieved, will follow a line of past instances dating back to the Byzantine era and then again under the Ottomans. Under the reign of Sultan Suleiman I (1520–66), frescoes depicting Biblical characters and Byzantine emperors above its narthex and imperial gates were whitewashed. Later, at the request of Sultan Abdulmejid (1839–61), the mosaics in the upper gallery were re-plastered in 1847–49. These were subsequently uncovered again by restoration teams when the site became a museum in 1935. Some of the Istanbul site’s most famous Christian mosaics include the 9th-century Mosaic of the Apse, which adorns the golden dome with its depiction of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus; the 11th-century Empress Zoe mosaic, which portrays Jesus flanked by the empress and Constantine IX Monomachus; as well as the 13th-century Deësis mosaic featuring John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. 

The change in status for the Hagia Sophia has sparked notable opposition from the members of the international community who are concerned the monument’s universal character and the nation’s secular status are being undermined. Authorities who have openly urged Turkey to reverse its decision include UNESCO, the World Council of Churches, the Russian Orthodox Church, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church, among other religious and political groups.

This shift marks the latest turn in the 1,500-year-long tug of war that has characterized the site, which attracts more than 3.7 million visitors annualy. Built in 537 as a Christian cathedral under the orders of Justinian I, the basilica was converted into a mosque under Mehmed II when the city of Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. The building was designated as a museum in 1935 soon after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. In 1985, it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Though technically a museum, the site has been gradually transformed over the recent decade. The adhan or ezan, the Islamic call to prayer, has been broadcast from the Ottoman-era minarets since 2013.

Charmaine Kong is an editorial intern of ArtAsiaPacific.

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