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The recent transformation of Hagia Sophia (Saint Sophia or Divine Wisdom) into an Islamic mosque shows us that the fall of Constantinople and the city’s renaming to Istanbul by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century has had long lasting effects in which the Muslim majority of Turkey continues to relish.

The current structure is the third church dedicated to the Holy Wisdom built in the same location. The first two were built in 360 A.D. and in 415 A.D., both destroyed in riots in 404 and 532, respectively. Thirty-nine days after the destruction of 532, the construction of the current building was ordered by Emperor Justinian and completed in less than six years. The church was the largest cathedral in the world for close to 1,000 years[1].

Hagia Sophia was, and still is, so magnificent that the legend says that the Emperor Justinian, upon entering the building for the first time and admiring the splendor of the cathedral, exclaimed: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!”[2], referring to the Temple of Jerusalem.

Naturally, the cathedral was converted to a mosque when Mehmed II’s army conquered the city in 1453. It remained such until 1934 when President Kemal Atatürk converted Hagia Sophia into a museum, signaling the secularization of the Turkish government and the beginning of a new era of religious tolerance.

The long history of this cathedral is sprinkled with stories and legends that make the building even more interesting. It is said that during the construction in the sixth century, the builders faced an apparently unsolvable problem in the construction of the huge dome (the second largest in the world at the time) and not being able to solve the issue decided to go to the imperial palace to discuss the dilemma. The workers left their tools on site and a youngster was left there to keep an eye on the tools and the construction. When this young man was alone, an angel appeared to him and gave him the answer on how to solve the issue with the dome, then the angel told him to go and provide the solution to the master builders. The angel promised to stay there caring for the building until this young man returned. When the kid explained the entire event and the key to solving the problem, everybody was convinced that an angel had appeared and decided not to allow him to return to the work area, assuming that if the boy never returned, the angel was going to keep his promise and watch after the building forever[3]. The angel might still be there as you read this!

After the Great Schism of Eastern and Western Christianity, it was not a surprise that Hagia Sophia became the center of the Eastern Church. The patriarch of Constantinople had been considered second only to the Pope within the ecclesiastic hierarchy.

“we cannot forget that beauty” The Conversion of Vladimir the Great

Another very interesting account related to Hagia Sophia is the conversion of the Russian people to Christian Orthodoxy. There are several accounts of the conversion of the Russians, mostly out of paganism and the one I think is the most interesting is this: Czar Vladimir the Great had been raised a pagan by his father, in opposition to his Christian grandmother: Saint Olga. It appears that Czar Vladimir had decided to embrace a monotheistic religion and he had envoys from all four major religions in his empire come to talk to him and he also sent his envoys to the main religious centers of the time. Vladimir had a strong preference to convert to Islam, for he could keep his multiple wives, but the fact that the Russians would have to renounce pork and liquor made It impossible to accept that religion. He also considered Judaism but could not accept a religion whose land had been conquered. He found Catholicism to be particularly unpalatable, since he had to obey the Pope. Orthodoxy did not have any of the negatives of the other creeds, but the positive report from the envoys who had been granted permission to attend a High Mass in Hagia Sophia was so impressive that the Czar accepted Christian Orthodoxy. His envoys reported that the ceremony in the majestic cathedral, with the chants, the incense, the candles, the procession and the ornaments was such that the emissaries were unsure if they were still on earth or if they had been raised to heaven and their report ended saying: “we cannot forget that beauty”[4]. The fact that conversion to Orthodoxy was necessary to be able to marry Anna, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, was probably another influence in his decision.[5] In any event, his conversion was probably truthful, since he abandoned the pagan rites and his multiple wives and concubines and built many Christian churches.

It is easy to understand the joy most Christians felt when the Mosque was converted to a museum to honor all religions that had worshiped within its confines. At that time, President Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, ordered the plaster that hid the Christian mosaics to be removed so that the magnificent images could be admired again after 500 years of darkness.

On July 10,2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the museum of Hagia Sophia was reconverting into a mosque[6]. The real reasons were not disclosed, but they do not need to be explicit. Istanbul has no need of more religious centers dedicated to Islam. In 2007 there were 2944 active Islamic religious sites in the city[7]. You can imagine the reaction of the Greek and Russian patriarchs and the Pope, patriarch of the West, as well as such world leaders as President Putin in Russia. This grand feat of architecture made to honor the one true God has suffered the terrorist flags of both Isis and the Taliban, these banners of the culture of death have now flown under the magnificent dome of Hagia Sophia[8].

Hector Zepeda, M.D.

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