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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission.
This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

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Haghia Sophia Church (İstanbul)

Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Ayasofya Meydanı, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul



Haghia Sophia Church is the biggest church built by the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire). Actually this is the third church built at the same location. After being demolished by an unsuccessful mob against the emperor Justinian I. in 532, the existing monumental church was built by the same emperor in relatively short time and opened on 27th December 537. It has traditional basilical plan with three naves, which is covered with a central dome. The dome is 55.60 m high and its radius is 31.87 m in the North to South direction and 30.86 in the East to West direction. Where the walls are not covered by marble slabs, once can still see very exquisite examples of Byzantine mosaic art. The mosaic decorations consist of floral and geometrical as well as figurative ones. The church was concerted into a mosque after the Turkish conquest in 1453 and served as a prayer place until Republic of Turkey was founded. Haghia Sophia has been a museum since 1 February 1935. The church is situated in the very historical part of Istanbul, at Sultan Ahmet Square. It is open every day.
It was the most prestigious church of the Byzantine Empire. During its construction, materials from all around the empire were brought including from Ephesus and Egypt. It was where the Byzantine Emperors were crowned. Since it was the central piece of Orthodox faith of the Byzantine Empire, it was the first church converted into mosque where Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II had his first Friday prayer after conquering the city. Monumental religious architecture has been an important issue of pride for almost every religion. Therefore grandiosity of the church itself attracted many people. Especially huge dome covering the central part of the church, like the one of Pantheon in Rome creates a quite dramatic experience for the visitors. The same approach is also visible in the classical Ottoman architecture, especially in the works of famous Sinan the Architecs such as Süleymaniye Mosque in İstanbul and Selimiye Mosque in Edirne.
Although the building serves as a museum now, it has strong visual elements from her past including mosaic panels from Christian era and immense 8 round wooden panels with striking calligraphic works from 19th century mentioning the names of Allah, Muhammad, and the four caliphs, namely Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali as well as the grandsons of Muhammad, namely Hasan and Husayn. There is also a richly decorated mihrab (pointing out the direction of Mecca) placed next to apsis of the church. Having a neutral position as a museum now, the church itself is actually a virtual battle place between the Muslims and the Orthodox Christians. Because of her symbolic meaning, people who are against inter-religious communication defend the idea that the building should serve a prayer place of their faith.
After the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottoman Empire, the church was converted into a mosque, and functioned as such until 1935. Being next to Topkapı Palace where Ottoman sultans lived until Dolmabahçe Palace was built on the Bosphorus in the 19th century, it remained as an important prayer place even sultans had different mosques built in their names. During multi-ethnic and multi-religion society of the Ottoman Era, Christian and Jewish community could perform their faith freely. People from different faiths and ethnic origins lived together, worked or made trade together. With mutual respect there were no major conflicts until late 19th century when different nations in the Balkans started to fight for their independence from the Ottomans. On the other hand efforts to turn Ottoman Empire into a parliamentarian monarchy provided its multi-ethnic and multi-religion society with equal rights as Ottoman citizens. WWI brought the Ottoman Empire to an end and the Independence War against occupation of different Western forces led the way to the foundation of a new republic, namely Republic of Turkey. During this decades long conflicts, religious identity mixed with ethnic identity played a major role ending up strong prejudices which are still valid today. Therefore the Church of Saint Sophia is still a symbol being used for political issues.
Didactical relevance:
- Discussion on converted religious places and how they are used for political reasons, which may form an obstacle for inter-religion dialogue.
- Use of artistic and architectural elements as visual elements of certain faiths.

Proposed way to use with students:
- Direct visit (if possible)
Direct visit will provide students with the opportunity of experiencing the atmosphere.
- Virtual visit (specify how)
A Power Point presentation prepared by the teacher.
- Classroom activity (pre- and post- visit)
Pre-visit activity should contain historical and artistic background of the place presented by the teacher followed by a quiz to make sure that every student pays attention.
Post-visit activity should be a workshop in which students are asked to write a short essay guided by the questions by teacher.

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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This web site reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.