Why I Dislike the Hagia Sophia

Culture Keeper regular Zach Stone discusses culture and place and history:


"Despite the near 40 hours on a train punctuated by several late passport checks at various borders, we arrived in Istanbul keen to see the sights, starting with the Hagia Sophia, built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 360 AD. Supposedly upon entering it for the first time Justinian exclaimed that he had out done even Solomon. Certainly, the massive dome was an architectural marvel at the time, and the trick of concealing its supports inside the walls increases the magnitude of the interior. Its size was unmatched for over 1000 years, and the mystery of how its dome was supported even longer. That said, I was incredibly underwhelmed.

Perhaps travel weariness and church fatigue after 2 weeks traveling in Europe contributed, as well as the steep entrance fee, but even still, Aya Sofia lacked something. Converted to a mosque in 1453 when Mehmet II conquered Constantinople, it suffered at the hands of the Ottomans. Ideologically opposed to representational art, its frescos and mosaics were plastered over and only remnants remain today. Additionally the Arabic script and medallions still mar the ancient Cathedral despite Ataturk’s secularization of it as a museum after WWI.

Still, though, not even its adultured state accounts for the lack of impact it had on me. Disappointed we headed down the street to the Blue Mosque, the chief Mosque of Istanbul. Facing each other across a long garden, the two invite comparisons, and in truth in many of Istanbul’s finest mosques one can’t help but notice their attempts to match Justinian’s marvel. The Blue Mosque, though, unlike Hagia Sophia, is not a museum, but a functioning house of worship. While free to visit, visitors are asked to remove their shoes, cover their heads- if women-, and restrict their visit so as not to disturb those praying.

Where the Hagia Sophia failed to make any emotive or ethical impact on me, the Blue Mosque was deeply moving, and seeing an Asian tourist blatantly disrespecting the Mosque’s requests for respect was equally upsetting. It struck me then, the difference between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. On is dead, the other is not.

When Ataturk thought he could blithly turn the Hagia Sopia into a museum and thus not only retain but also memorialize its significance he was deeply misguided. Mosques, Church, and houses of worship are not like other buildings, they cannot simply be turned into museums with out a serious loss of identity. The feeling one gets when entering a house of prayer is the feeling of being called upon, of facing a direct challenge to one’s own sense of self and other. By functioning as houses of prayer and worship, churches and mosques make implicit demands that museums do not. The offense of the anonymous Asian tourist was that she treated the Blue Mosque as if it was a museam, a commodity for her consumption as a tourist. No doubt she just walked over from the Hagia Sopia, but failed to realize that the Blue Mosque is different. Not because it is specifically a Mosque, but because it is specifically not a museum.

All the Hagia Sopia asks for is 20 YTL, about $15 a head, and for that you get walk into a room that used to be the center of the world, but now is just a very old, very empty building. The Blue Mosque is free, but demands your respect and mediates the terms of your visit. It is not possible to offend the Hagia Sophia, it is too long dead. You can do what you like in the Hagia Sophia, nobody cares as long as you pay the fee and don’t do anything to damage the asset, in a way, lady Wisdom has become a whore hawking her wares on the streets under the disapproving stare of the Blue Mosque. "

-Zach Stone

Read more of Zach's Blog: Someday Never Comes

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