What is the controversy surrounding the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia, a monument that encapsulates the layered history of Istanbul, Turkey, has been at the center of controversy due to its shifting status between a mosque and a museum, reflecting the broader tensions between secularism and religious traditions within the country and the international community’s concern over cultural heritage.

Constructed in 537 AD under Emperor Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia served as a cathedral for nearly a thousand years, becoming a central figure in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Its architectural brilliance, notably the massive dome, set new standards for engineering and aesthetics, influencing religious architecture across the Christian and Muslim worlds.

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The conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire marked a significant moment in the history of the building and the city, symbolizing the change of guard and the city’s transformation under new rulers. This period saw the addition of Islamic architectural elements, including minarets, while preserving the building’s Christian artworks under plaster, embodying a physical and cultural synthesis.

The Hagia Sophia, originally known as the Church of the Holy Wisdom, is a historic building in Istanbul, Turkey. It has served multiple religious purposes over its long history, reflecting the city’s complex cultural and religious history.

The controversy around the Hagia Sophia took a pivotal turn in the 20th century when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, secularized and converted it into a museum in 1935. This act was part of broader reforms aimed at modernizing Turkey, separating religion from state affairs, and promoting a secular national identity.

As a museum, the Hagia Sophia became a symbol of universal cultural heritage, open to all and embodying the coexistence of diverse religious histories.

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The decision in July 2020 by a Turkish court to annul the museum status of the Hagia Sophia, subsequently ratified by a presidential decree, converting it back into a mosque, reignited tensions and debate. This decision was praised by many within Turkey who saw it as a restoration of the country’s Islamic heritage and a matter of national sovereignty. However, it was met with significant criticism both domestically and internationally for several reasons.

Firstly, critics argue that converting the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque undermines the secular principles upon which modern Turkey was founded. Atatürk’s reforms, including the establishment of the Hagia Sophia as a museum, were intended to put religious and state affairs on separate paths, fostering a secular public life. The reversal of its museum status is seen by some as a move away from these secular ideals.

Image: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a founding father of Turkey.

Secondly, the Hagia Sophia holds immense cultural and historical significance for the Christian community, particularly for the Eastern Orthodox Church, to which it remains a potent symbol of their faith’s history and tradition. Its conversion into a mosque is perceived as disregarding the importance of this heritage and the sentiments of the Christian community.

Furthermore, the international community, including UNESCO, has expressed concerns over the impact of this decision on the monument’s universal value as a site of extraordinary historical and architectural significance, listed as a World Heritage Site. The fear is that its change in status might restrict access to or alter the preservation of the building’s unique attributes that embody the confluence of Christian and Islamic cultures.

The controversy surrounding the Hagia Sophia is emblematic of broader tensions within Turkey and between tradition and modernity, secularism and religiosity. It highlights the challenges of preserving cultural heritage in a way that respects diverse histories and beliefs while navigating contemporary political and social dynamics.

In defense of the decision, proponents argue that the Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque does not preclude its historical and architectural preservation. The Turkish government has assured that the Christian icons and frescoes would be preserved and covered only during Islamic prayers, not destroyed, ensuring that the Hagia Sophia remains a bridge between its Christian past and Islamic present. They contend that the building continues to symbolize the rich, multifaceted identity of Turkey and its people, embodying a history of transformations that reflect the country’s dynamic character.

The Hagia Sophia’s status is more than a matter of religious identity; it’s a reflection of the ongoing negotiation between Turkey’s past and its future, between its commitment to preserving a diverse heritage and asserting its sovereignty.

This controversy opens up essential discussions on the role of historical monuments in our society, the meaning of secularism in a modern state, and the ways in which we honor and preserve our shared cultural heritage in a changing world.


As the debate continues, the Hagia Sophia stands as a monument to human ingenuity, resilience, and the complex layers of history that define civilizations. Its dome, once the largest in the world, spans above a space that has been a place of worship for Christians and Muslims alike, reminding us of the shared human quest for the divine and the transcendent, beyond the confines of any singular tradition or historical narrative.

The Hagia Sophia, with its rich history and architectural grandeur, continues to inspire awe and reflection, standing as a testament to the enduring power of cultural heritage to connect us to our past, challenge our present, and guide us toward a more inclusive future.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia, a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, stands as a testament to the rich history and cultural fusion of Istanbul, Turkiye. This iconic structure has served various roles over the centuries, from a Greek Orthodox cathedral to an Ottoman imperial mosque, and now a museum and, as of recently, a mosque again.

These questions cover the basics of what many are curious about regarding the Hagia Sophia, reflecting its importance as a cultural and architectural landmark in Istanbul.

When was the Hagia Sophia built?

The Hagia Sophia was constructed three times in the same location. The current structure was commissioned by Emperor Justinian I and was completed in 537 AD, on the site of previous buildings that had been destroyed.

Who built the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia was built under the order of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The architects responsible for its design were Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, who were both physicists and mathematicians.

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Why is the Hagia Sophia significant?

The Hagia Sophia is significant for several reasons. Architecturally, it is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, notable for its massive dome. Historically and culturally, it symbolizes the intersection of Christian and Islamic civilizations, having served as a cathedral, mosque, and museum over the centuries.

Has the Hagia Sophia always been a mosque?

No. The Hagia Sophia was originally built as a Christian cathedral. It was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In 1935, it was secularized and turned into a museum by the Republic of Turkey. In July 2020, a Turkish court annulled the museum status, allowing it to be converted back into a mosque.

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What are some of the architectural features of the Hagia Sophia?

The Hagia Sophia is renowned for its massive dome, which was a marvel of engineering for its time. The structure also features a combination of basilica and central dome structures, intricate Christian mosaics and Islamic calligraphy, and a series of magnificent marble pillars.

Are there any restrictions on visiting the Hagia Sophia?

As a mosque, the Hagia Sophia is open to visitors outside of prayer times. Visitors are expected to observe modest dress and decorum typical of a place of worship. Specific areas may be restricted for prayer and religious activities.

Can tourists visit the Hagia Sophia?

Yes, tourists can visit the Hagia Sophia outside of Islamic prayer times. There may be specific guidelines and restrictions in place to respect its status as a functioning mosque.

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