Hagia Sofia’s History and Icons.

The world-famous Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul – originally founded as a Cathedral – has been turned back into a mosque. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the decision after a court annulled the site’s museum status.

Built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian Cathedral, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453.

The Hagia Sophia, a major draw for tourists, has a long and complicated history. The architectural marvel was built as a church by the Byzantines in the 6th century and then converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

In 1934, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Cabinet decreed that it be turned into a museum. It is widely regarded as a symbol of peaceful religious coexistence.  It is a Unesco World Heritage site.

The change that is coming to Hagia Sophia, has endured since the 6th century, outlasting the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman era. Now, once again, it will be a mosque. But Turkish officials say Christian emblems, including mosaics of the Virgin Mary which adorn its soaring golden dome, will not be removed.

Making changes at Hagia Sophia is profoundly symbolic. It was Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who decreed that it should be a museum. But many in the international community argue that the monument belongs to humanity – not to Turkey – and should have remained unchanged. They say it was a bridge between two faiths, and a symbol of co-existence. Shortly after the announcement, the first call to prayer was recited at Hagia Sophia and was broadcast on all of Turkey’s main news channels.

Bob Atchison has put a lot of study into the Icons in Hagia Sofia and given a background to the history. When you enter the museum today tourists come through a huge vaulted antechamber. Over the door is a big mosaic of the Virgin with Constantine and Justinian on either side of her.  In her lap sits the Christ child. This mosaic has stood here for over one thousand years. We don’t know when it was concealed under whitewash and plaster, but most of the major mosaics of Hagia Sophia remained exposed for hundreds of years after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans.



As you enter the main body of the museum the Virgin and Child in the apse stands immediately ahead of you.  In the vastness of the space of the nave the figure is small. Here it remained for hundreds of years after the church was converted into a mosque.  Millions of Muslims prayed beneath her, with the angels on either side of her in the bema arch.

Getting back to icons of the Virgin in Hagia Sophia, there are still two fine examples of them in the upper south gallery.  This space was connected to the Great Palace by a wooden causeway and staircase. It had big windows so people could see members of the Imperial family and court process from the palace to the church above them. This elevated causeway was renowned and impressive – it was duplicated in other royal courts of the time. Years ago you could still see Byzantine inscriptions on the other wall of Hagia Sophia where the causeway was connected to the wall.  Now the doorway on the inside opens out into the open air. 


The south gallery is often called the Imperial gallery, but it really isn’t. People see the images of the Imperial rulers of Byzantium here and draw the conclusion that it’s a royal space.  The Great Church of Hagia Sophia was a Patriarchal one, it was not an Imperial establishment.  The Emperor could not enter Hagia Sophia without invitation from the Patriarch, who would greet the Emperor and his family at whatever entrance they used.

There are three surviving mosaics in the upper south gallery; two of them have Imperial figures.  These show members of the Imperial family making donations of money and other grants to the church and the clergy of Hagia Sophia.  This space was actually a clerical space and many church councils where held there.


One of the mosaic panels shows John, Eirene and their son Alexios Comnenos with the Virgin Theotokos between them.  This mosaic is very famous and is one of the highlights that every tourist who ventures to the second floor galleries sees and admires. The figure of the Virgin and Child seems stiff and hieratic to modern viewers. It represents a specific icon type of the Theotokos, one that was considered a patroness of the Imperial family and court. The other icon of the Virgin in the south gallery is to the left of Christ in the great Deesis. It contrasts dramatically in style to the other one.  The Deesis Virgin is of extremely fine workmanship and has an almost excessive softness about it. It is composed of incredibly small cubes of glass and stone and was created to take advantage of the unique lighting of its position next to the great windows of the gallery.

There were many portable images of the Virgin throughout Hagia Sophia.  Those on the ground floor were celebrated by pilgrims to the church.  Many were great works of art that inspired artists across Europe and Asia. The main focus of visitors to the church would have been the images between the columns of the great marble iconostasis of the church which were encrusted with silver, enamel, pearls and enamels which were stripped of their adornments and destroyed after the conversion of the church into a mosque.



Praying with icons

First of all, find an icon. If possible, light a candle or burn some incense nearby. This can further enhance the atmosphere of prayer, engaging all the senses. Then, simply gaze at the icon.

Many spiritual writers explain that praying with icons is a receptive experience, where we gaze into heaven and allow God to touch our heart.            It is important to simply look at the icon and notice the various details and colors. Everything in the icon is symbolic and points to some spiritual truth about God. If the subject of the icon is a saint, there are typically various symbols that create a “spiritual portrait” of the saint, reflecting attributes or events that contributed to the person’s holiness.

The gold background is a reminder of the presence of God and his uncreated light. It is an invitation to enter his presence and be taken up into a spiritual realm of beauty.

Listening is an important part of praying with icons as it allows us to hear the word of God and what he desires to speak to us. It reinforces the reality that prayer is essentially a conversation where we deepen our love of God.

When looking at the icon, remain silent and still and recognize where your eye is drawn. What effect does the color have on you? What feelings does the icon stir up?

Notice the eyes of the individual in the icon. Often the eyes are looking back at us. Let the eyes of Jesus, Mary, or one of the saints penetrate your soul. What are they trying to tell you?

Take as much time as you need with the icon. At first, try spending 10 or 15 minutes with the icon. This type of prayer requires a contemplative heart, one that slows down, taking a break from the fast-paced society that we live in.

After sufficient time has passed, thank God for the opportunity to be with him and store the icon in a suitable place. Praying with icons can be a beautiful experience, one that can be repeated each and every day.  



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