Church, Mosque, Museum? Reflections on Monuments in Turkey and Spain - Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycioglu

News item

Russian tourists visit Ayasofya-i Kebir Camii or Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey, January 29, 2021. Murad 


On July 24, 2020, the Turkish government opened Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to prayer for the first time in 86 years, reverting the building’s status from museum back to mosque.

The Hagia Sophia, built between 534 and 537, functioned as a church until 1453, when it was converted to a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. It remained a mosque until 1934, when the Republic of Turkey declared the building a museum.

The varied and layered history of the Hagia Sophia has led to a range of different interpretations of its significance. Some observers are inclined to see it as primarily a Byzantine and Christian monument, emphasizing its origins and life up until 1453 and viewing all later developments as irrelevant for its architectural and cultural history. On the other hand, those who see Hagia Sophia as primarily an Ottoman Islamic monument emphasize the transformative nature of the Ottoman conquest. They see its Byzantine past as the prehistory of the building, which ended with its spiritual transmutation. Beyond these opposing narratives of origin versus conversion, those who advocate  for the building’s museum status—including a majority of the academic and cultural heritage community—also seem to prioritize the monument’s Christian character and mosaics, while only superficially addressing the building’s Ottoman layers.

Ideally, the multiple pasts of Hagia Sophia—church, mosque, museum—should be understood together in a narrative that encompasses the building’s entire history and the social, spiritual and cultural life of the building in all periods. Appreciation of its full history would also include an emphasis on its significance within the broader context of the Byzantine, Latin, Ottoman and modern Turkish eras. Looking at the situation of the Hagia Sophia alongside that of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba in Spain provides a way to compare and contrast different strategies for managing the plural histories of monuments and to see how their history and architecture has been instrumentalized for national purposes. Complex structural and decorative changes were made to both buildings over time and both have been subject to decidedly modern methods of framing their pasts.