The Symbolism of Imperial Power

Hagia Sophia was never just a house of worship, but a monument of Christian and Islamic empires

The Symbolism of Imperial Power
Hagia Sophia/ Getty Images

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave his speech on July 10 following the conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque, he called the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the first conversion of the building “among the most glorious chapters in Turkish history.” He also quoted a poem calling the reconversion, long prayed for by religious conservatives, a “second conquest.”

Erdogan made no mention of the Hagia Sophia’s nine-century history as the most important church in the Byzantine Empire, speaking only of its 470-year Ottoman heritage as an equally important mosque. The Turkish president’s politicization of the building is very much in line with its 1,500-year history, but not recognizing its Byzantine heritage was very un-Ottoman of him.

The Hagia Sophia was never simply a place of worship for the Byzantines or the Ottomans. It was a symbol of imperial power and divine authority. It was at the center of what experts call a “religioscape” – a physical landscape of religious structures and paraphernalia. Conquering powers not only create their own religioscapes, but appropriate existing ones by converting places of worship such as the Hagia Sophia.

But the Ottomans, unlike Erdogan, acknowledged and even appropriated aspects of the building’s Byzantine heritage by leaving Christian elements untouched and uncovered.

In the year 532, the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire was devastated. Thirty thousand rioters lay slain after the Nika Revolt, an uprising against Emperor Justinian’s high taxes and his anti-corruption measures aimed at powerful vested interests, was crushed by imperial troops backed by Scandinavian mercenaries. Nearly half of the capital, Constantinople, lay in smoldering ruins, including the most important cathedral, St. Sophia – Church of the Holy Wisdom. St. Sophia was itself the second church of that name, built after the first one was destroyed by another mob in 404.

But Emperor Justinian had a plan to restore the empire to its greatness. He would rebuild St. Sophia a third time, but on a scale and with an architectural ingenuity the world had never seen before. The famous chronicler Procopius later wrote that God had allowed the mob to destroy the second St. Sophia so that the third and greatest version could be built.

Two of the paramount builders of their time and a small army of workers from around the empire went to work creating what would become one of the most important buildings ever constructed. The ceilings were covered with gold, and 40,000 pounds of silver were used to build the 50-foot iconostasis separating the nave from the sanctuary, accessible only to priests. According to legend, the imperial gate was built with wood from Noah’s Ark, and the True Cross was later placed in the church.

But the true marvel was the giant dome. Its base was encircled with 40 windows, flooding the church with light. The windows were spaced close together, their sides lined with gold, so that when sunlight hit them, it created the impression that the dome wasn’t attached to the building but floating above it. It was supported by four pendentives distributing its weight to the square walls, creating a massive, open space for congregants. Procopius wrote of the dome that “it seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven by that golden chain.”

Upon the structure’s completion in 537, Justinian was said to have murmured, “Glory to God, Who has deemed me worthy of fulfilling such a work. O Solomon, I have surpassed thee,” referring to the biblical king who built the First Temple in Jerusalem. Justinian went on to become one of history’s greatest emperors, expanding the Byzantine borders to their furthest extent, reconquering much of the old western empire, and overseeing a rejuvenation of arts and culture. Nothing exemplifies this Byzantine golden age more than the Hagia Sophia.

Over nine centuries later, on the night of May 28, 1453, the great church was crowded with congregants, refugees, and – briefly – Emperor Constantine XI himself. Constantinople, now the last holdout of the empire, waited for a miracle to stop the 80,000 soldiers of the mighty Ottoman armies, who were led by a leader as great as Justinian, 21-year-old Sultan Mehmed II, known in Turkish as Fatih – the conqueror.

The next day, as city and empire fell, Mehmed’s troops broke through St. Sophia’s doors and slaughtered the priests at the altar as they gave the last mass the church would ever see. After granting his troops a day of looting the city, Mehmed entered Constantinople accompanied by his bodyguard of elite Janissaries and chief imams and headed directly to St. Sophia. Upon arrival, he fell to his knees and sprinkled dirt onto his turban as a sign of humility before entering the building, and promptly ordered it converted to a mosque.

Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, a scholar at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Anthropology, still remembers her first visit to Hagia Sophia when she was just 9 or 10, overcome with the building’s power. “I remember feeling very small under its magnificent dome, and that feeling has continued. I still feel humbled by its architectural beauty, how light travels in the edifice, how the mosaics brilliantly glitter when the light hits them at a certain angle,” she says.

Her fascination with the Hagia Sophia, which was converted to a museum in 1935, inspired Tanyeri-Erdemir to become a leading expert in cultural heritage sites and converted religious buildings.

“Hagia Sophia is architecturally ingenious,” she explains. “It was built as a monument of imperial prestige to illustrate Justinian’s power and control over his empire, and part of that power comes from the effect that the edifice has on its spectators. You would feel literally [and] emotionally in the presence of a higher power.”

Procopius described how the Byzantines perceived the unparalleled architecture as divine. “Whenever one goes to this church to pray, one understands immediately that this work has been fashioned not by human power or skill, but by the influence of God. And so the visitor’s mind is lifted up to God and floats aloft, thinking that He cannot be far away, but must love to dwell in this place which He himself has chosen.”

Mehmed II immediately sensed this spiritual power as he walked under the great dome. It was as though he had discovered the mythical crown of a once-great emperor. Rather than smash it or lock it away in a closet, he chose to make it his own and don it himself.

Instead of erasing the building’s Byzantine heritage, which they learned well from reading Greek sources, the Ottomans reinterpreted it in a way to establish their own pre-ordained heritage. The mosaics were left untouched until they were partially covered in the early 17th century. Islamic scholars claimed that the half-dome above the apse had collapsed on the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday, and could only eventually be repaired with sand from Mecca, water from the holy well of Zamzam at the Kaaba, and the Prophet’s own saliva. The “weeping column,” said to have healing properties that the Byzantines ascribed to St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, also came to be seen as sacred by Muslims, who associated it with the Islamic saint Khidr.

As Constantinople burned, Mehmed, like Justinian before him, wanted to return the imperial capital to its former glory. The restoration of Hagia Sophia and its consecration as a mosque would symbolize the new golden age. Leaving the Christian elements unmolested reinforced the image of Ottoman sultans as the legitimate imperial successors to the Byzantines and was a reminder of the victory of Islam over Christianity.

In this interpretation, explains historian Ali Yaycıoğlu at Stanford University, “the building was destined to be a mosque, even before Islam,” and attained the same level of holiness as the Kaaba or Dome of the Rock.

The Ottomans felt the spiritual intensity of the building no less than the Byzantines. The famed 17th century traveler Evliya Celebi depicted the mystical atmosphere of the Hagia Sophia during Ramadan when it was lit with 2,000 lamps scented with camphor, while caged songbirds whose “sweet notes, mingled with those of the muezzins’ voices, filled the mosque with a harmony approaching to that of paradise.” Much like Procopius before him, he described how the magnificence of the building brought one closer to God: “All of those who see it remain lost on contemplating its beauties; it is the place where heavenly inspiration descends into the minds of the devout.”

Establishing control over the religioscape was standard practice for most empires and kingdoms throughout history. “When you take over new territory, one of the things you want to do to establish your rule, especially if you’re coming from a religious tradition different from the conquered territory, is take over the key religious sites. You have a few options: You can obliterate them, you can appropriate them, or you can convert them,” Tanyeri-Erdemir explains.

When the Ottomans conquered a new city, one of their first acts was to convert the most prominent church into a mosque, often giving it the name fatih or fethiye, pertaining to conquest. They changed very little of the church’s structure, in order to make its former self clear, thereby showing the triumph of Islam over Christianity.

All kinds of territorial empires and kingdoms converted religious buildings, from the Inca to European colonial powers. Aside from Hagia Sophia, another of the most famous examples is the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, built by the Moors as a mosque on the site of a former Roman temple and then a Visigoth church shared with Muslims. The mosque was converted into a church in 1236 by King Ferdinand III, but, in the same spirit as the Ottomans, the Spanish added to the building without destroying its Islamic features.

When the Ottomans conquered Belgrade in 1521, they destroyed or converted every church in the city. When the Hungarians took the city in 1688, they did the exact same thing to the mosques. The same process happened several more times as the city was taken in turn by the Austrians, Ottomans, and Serbians. Today only a single small mosque remains.

Some religious buildings have gone through several denominations of conversion. The Korkut, or Kesik Minare (Broken Minaret) mosque in Antalya, Turkey, went from being a Roman temple in the 2nd century to a Byzantine church in the 7th century, a Seljuk mosque in the 13th century, a Crusader church later that century, and finally an Ottoman mosque in the 16th century before burning down in 1800.

In his ground-breaking book, The Past is a Foreign Country (1985), American historian and geographer David Lowenthal asserted that the concept of cultural heritage has more to do with the present than the past, which is idealized and mythologized in order to serve an ideological purpose. Every nation-state manufactures these founding myths in an effort to derive legitimacy and to create a collective national memory, but as Turkish historian Edhem Eldem has written, “There are few countries where the issue of cultural heritage has been as constantly and systematically influenced by political concerns as in Turkey.”

In the republican period before Erdogan, fantastical official narratives twisted history to mythologize a largely manufactured Turkish “race” and erase minority cultures and religions. Erdogan’s vision is a glorification of very narrow facets of the Sunni Muslim Ottoman past, which appeals to his nationalist, religious conservative supporters. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque pleases these supporters and fits into Erdogan’s strategy of positioning himself as leader of the world’s oppressed Muslims, in competition with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“He’s scoring big points with these things,” says Halil İbrahim Yenigün, an expert on political Islam who lectures at San Jose University. Yenigün says this also resonates with many non-Turkish Muslims around the world. “He’s creating a much bigger constituency than his Turkish one.”

This fixation on Sunni Islam and Ottoman conquest means that Turkey’s rich Byzantine history, including over 900 years of the Hagia Sophia’s life, gets ignored or denigrated. One consequence of this is that many crumbling Byzantine structures get neglected, or restored in a way that highlights only their Ottoman past. For instance, just a month after the Hagia Sophia was converted, it was announced that the priceless Kariye Museum, built as a Byzantine church 1,000 years ago and converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and a museum in 1945, would also be reconverted to a mosque.

“The Byzantine Empire is always [seen as] a negative thing,” says Yaycıoğlu. The Byzantines are generally seen as a defeated “other,” rather than an important part of Turkish heritage, associated with corruption, decadence, and decline. Erdogan’s political partner and leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party Devlet Bahçeli called those who criticized the decision to convert Hagia Sophia “remnants of the Byzantines.”

The Ottoman Empire actually had more in common with other peasant-based, agricultural empires such as the Byzantines than with previous Turkic empires, and Turkish society today is descended as much from the conquered peoples as from the conquerors. The Ottoman and Byzantine empires were both multi-lingual, multi-sectarian societies that ruled over roughly the same territory, with their heartlands in the Balkans and Anatolia. Both empires were also seen as “eastern,” opaque, and decadent by western Christendom. Even in the earliest days of the Ottoman Empire, many of their subjects were former Byzantines, including thousands who fought to conquer Constantinople.

The Hagia Sophia is a perfect example of the empires flowing into one another.

The Hagia Sophia is a perfect example of the empires flowing into one another. The central dome, designed by Greek Byzantines, became the architectural basis for Ottoman and later Turkish mosques. Istanbul’s skyline is now full of mosque domes that were inspired by Byzantine architecture.

Mehmed II himself was a descendent of Byzantine princesses who was a polyglot, well-versed in Greek and Roman history. After conquering Constantinople, he became the first of several sultans to take the title of Kayser-i Rûm – Caesar of the Romans, because he saw himself as having not merely vanquished the Byzantines (who saw themselves as Romans), but also as carrying on their mantle of world empire. “They definitely claimed that Roman and Byzantine legacy,” Yaycıoğlu says.

Istanbul’s tiny surviving Greek Orthodox community, the Rum Polites, can be seen as the most direct descendants of the Byzantines, and no one asked them how they felt about the Hagia Sophia’s conversion. Yenigün says many of Erdogan’s supporters have an Ottoman-era notion of themselves as the millet hakime – the dominant nation, and that minorities are simply “tolerated,” rather than seen as equal citizens. “That notion of second-class subject is there.”

When Erdogan speaks glowingly of conquest and his supporters talk about kılıç hakkı – the right of the sword – Tanyeri-Erdemir says the archaic language sends the wrong message. “When the head of state adopts the language of conquest so freely, it brings to everybody’s mind the question: ‘Who is being conquered?’”

Every government politicizes the nation’s past to a certain extent, but the latest conversion of the Hagia Sophia demonstrates Erdogan and his ruling elite’s tendency to obsess over narrow aspects of Ottoman history, focusing on violent conquest, and ignoring the rich Byzantine heritage.

“There’s a new wave of thinking about history as a battle. It’s not coexistence that’s important – it’s conquest. It’s not tolerance that’s important – it’s the supremacy of Sunni Turks,” says Yaycıoğlu.

“Now, everything’s about history,” he adds. “Nobody talks about the future, for God’s sake.”

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