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.
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!”, 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. 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.