No matter how much people may try to stifle faith or make it seem irrelevant to the needs of modern man, the spiritual still remains deep in the hearts of men and women. For example, the communist regime in Soviet Russia or any of its satellites in Eastern Europe was unable to eradicate faith. In fact, one of the first things to happen after the collapse of the Soviet Union was the restoration of churches and cathedrals and an outpouring of popular devotion from people whose faith had been suppressed, but never destroyed, for 70 years.
The museum of Ayasofya in Istanbul is a symbol of such attempts to marginalize faith and religion. Turned into a museum in 1935 by Kemal Ataturk, the first president of a new and fiercely secular Turkey, Hagia Sophia still defies all attempts to tame the faith that inspired it.
A church for over a 1,000 years, and a mosque for 500 more, it is the most spectacular building in Istanbul, which is itself a city not short of spectacular monuments. Its transformations over the centuries from Greek Orthodox to Latin cathedral and then to one of the largest mosques in the world, speaks more of the primacy of faith than the supremacy of any particular creed. It is a monument to the divine, in a world where the divine is often pushed aside.
A church had existed on the spot since 360 CE. Built between 532 CE and 537 CE by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, was a marvel from its conception. Upon its completion, Justinian is said to have declared, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” His architects and engineers had not only created the largest church in the world, but had covered it with a massive dome that defied everything engineering had ever thought possible. A greater dome would only be created in the 16th century with the completion of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The dome of Hagia Sophia rests on four great pillars brought down the Nile from what is now Sudan, along with pillars and stone from throughout the vast empire. It is also very cleverly supported by pendentives, which act as upturned buttresses, bearing the heavy weight and spreading it evenly on the pillars and supporting walls. Because Hagia Sophia was built in only five years, the pace of construction limited the time for the mortar between the bricks to set. The dome was placed too quickly on the square walls beneath it, causing them to buckle outwards under the weight. This was rectified when the dome was repaired after the great earthquake that struck Constantinople in 989 CE. Under this restoration, the height of the dome was actually increased by 20 feet. An innovation in its time, the great dome of Hagia Sophia became a standard feature of later Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Islamic architecture for centuries to come.
Hagia Sophia remained the largest church in the world until the building of Seville cathedral 1,000 years later. The simple stuccoed walls of its exterior are in marked contrast to the ornate mosaics and gleaming gold of the interior. Millions of tiny pieces of gold and colored glass form pictures of Christ and the saints. The elaborate marble floor complements the stunning polychrome fantasy of the walls and ceiling.
Much has been made of the fact that the mosaics were covered with whitewash when the church was turned into a mosque. It is true that the mosaics were indeed covered, since images of Christ and the saints would have been offensive to Muslim worship. But what is overlooked is that the mosaics were periodically restored and repaired, the layers of plaster carefully peeled away before being replaced for years to come. The Ottoman rulers respected the beauty of the place and the artistry of its craftsmen, but felt that their duty was to a higher Master than art. Beautiful pictures were to be no match for a simple and pure worship of Allah.
When Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204 CE, as well as wreaking murder and carnage within the city itself, they also took away many relics and precious treasures from the church. The church was turned into a mosque after Constantinople was taken by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. One of the architects of Suleiman the Magnificent, the extraordinary Master Sinan, repaired the building extensively in the 16th century, providing greater exterior support for the dome and the walls. Minarets were added. Massive roundels, bearing the names of Allah and His Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him), were placed above the supporting pillars. Probably the greatest restoration took place in the 19thcentury during the reign of Sultan Abdulmecid.
As we have said, though, an attempt to silence the voices of prayer and praise was made in 1935 with the abolition of the caliphate and the creation of a secular Turkey. Whether the voices came from those singing hymns to the Creator or those prostrating themselves before Him, the practice of faith was suppressed. Yet, no such attempt can be successful.
Muslims read in the Qur’an:
[He is the Lord of the heavens and the Earth and all that is in between them. So worship Him and be patient in His worship; do you know any equal to Him?) (Maryam 19:65) Now one of the contenders for the title of the New Seven Wonders of the World, Hagia Sophia reminds all people of faith that they have much in common with one another. Rather than dividing people of faith, it actually brings them together to see that it is when they are together that they are strong. Religious people take comfort from Hagia Sophia, knowing that they need only to be patient in worship of Allah, since the victory surely belongs to Him.
By Idris Tawfiq