Haghia Sophia from the ground level

Haghia Sophia from the ground level from Wikipedia.

We are in Turkey on an educational tour, looking at the shared Islamic, Christian, and Jewish heritages here.

While we were in Istanbul, that magnificent historical capital for so many centuries, the place that an Ottoman poet called “Peerless, save perhaps for Paradise”, the site simply called “The Abode of Felicity” and as it were the Threshold between heaven and Earth, there was a rally on behalf of Muslims who would like to see the Haghia Sophia restored to a mosque. 

In the United States, there are Greek Orthodox groups that would like to see the Haghia Sophia restored to being the original church that it was for many centuries.

Ibrahim Kalin, a senior advisor to the Turkish prime minister, has refuted these speculations, stating:

“Speculation on changing it into a church or a mosque remains speculation.
Hagia Sophia has been open to all visitors from Turkey and around the world and will remain so.”

Haghia Sophia

Haghia Sophia from wikipedia.

The current Haghia Sophia was built in 537 as the largest and grandest church in the world at that time. It served as the seat of the Greek Orthodox tradition until the conquest of Istanbul in 1453.   From that time until the “reforms” of Ataturk in 1925 it functioned as a mosque.     Since the time of Ataturk it functions as a museum, and Turkey’s most popular tourist destination.

The argument for it serving as a museum are numerous, and include that since multiple religious communities want to use it, and they couldn’t be possibly expected to share the building, it is best for it to serve as a secular museum.   Yet it is clearly not a secular space to many visitors, Muslims and Christians alike.   That explanation goes hand in hand with the ideology that secularism can serve as the only mediator among religious communities, that religion is ultimately a divisive force in diverse societies.

I wonder.     And I like to wonder what it would be like to try an experiment whereby Muslims would get to use the Haghia Sophia for Friday prayers today as they did for 500 years.     I wonder what it would be like to close the Haghia Sophia for tourists between let’s say noon-2:00 p.m. to prepare it for prayers, the way that mosques like Sultanahmet mosque “the Blue Mosque” and Suleymaniyye close to tourists during prayer time. After that brief interlude on Friday, it would open up again to tourists.   And likewise, I wonder what it would be like to have the Haghia Sophia open for a Sunday mass to the Greek Orthodox community.

Jesus mosaic in Haghia Sophia

Jesus mosaic in Haghia Sophia from Wikipedia.

I wonder.   I wonder if it is possible for us as human beings to bring our shared love and affection to mingle, rather than compete in a zero-sum game. I wonder if we are still at an adolescent game of our spiritual development where we need the state to step in, taking the toys away that we cannot agree to share nicely.

I wonder.   I wonder about all of our shared religious sites, in Jerusalem, in Istanbul, and elsewhere.

Ultimately, I wonder about us, the human beings inhabiting this tiny blot dot in the vast cosmos, third rock from the sun, one sun among hundreds of billions of suns, among hundreds of billions of galaxies.

I wonder.






  1. I wonder as well. I think the question actually revolves around architecture. Orthodox Christians need a consecrated altar and iconography in worship (which would probably exclude Muslim use of the “sanctuary” where the altar and iconostasis would be located). Likewise, Muslim worship would require a lack of icons (since pictures of the Divine are prohibited). This would mean that the iconostasis be covered over during prayers. If Muslim prayer was directed in one direction (toward Mecca) but the altar was in another direction, the plan might work. After all, Roman Catholics and various Orthodox communities share churches in the holy land, and there is often no love lost between them. But they make it work. If “turf” could be divided in Hagia Sofia, perhaps a similar arrangement could happen. But if they must worship in the same direction within the same space, I’m not sure it could. But still, like you, I wonder.

  2. Covering and uncovering Hagia Sofia’s art treasures (like in the cemetery chapel used, 30 seconds apart, for funerals and weddings in the movie “The Loved One”) is NOT the answer.

    You wonder? I wonder WHY any religion would want to worship in a building conceived, built, decorated and used for a thousand years by another religion. Grant you, when the city was taken by force, there were no mosques in Constantinople, so there was a reason to use Hagia Sofia. But in the centuries that followed, hundreds of mosques were built… many (like the Blue Mosque) copying the then 1,000 year-old Greco-Roman-derived design of a CHRISTIAN expression of its faith… Hagia Sofia.

    I wonder… why no one is asking the MOTIVATION of the demands that Hagia Sofia be reconverted to a mosque? Is there a scarcity of room for the devout in the area? No. The motivation is a nationalistic triumphalism being used for political ends. There were many mosques built that copied the then 1,000 year-old Christian design of Hagia Sofia, including the Blue Mosque.

    Attaturk was right when he listened to Thos. Whittemore of the Byzantine Institute in the early 1930s, and uncovered the art that is the civilized world’s patrimony and let it be preserved and appreciated at least as a museum.

    The Turkish tourism officials have been adept at commercializing the historic treasures that are not the fruits of their culture or civilization, but rather fell into their hands thru conquest, e.g. replacing the statue of St. Nicholas (a Christian Bishop) with one of a germanic Santa Claus, and recreating a “Hollywood” Troy and Noah’s Ark to attract foreign tourists. Yet the biggest draw they could possibly create, if they were as shrewd as they think they are, would be to take their already #1 tourist attraction, Hagia Sofia, and let it be restored by the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians to its original designed use… a Christian cathedral. Then the dollars, rubles, etc. would REALLY flow. THEN people could believe that Turkey respects pluralism and religious freedom.

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