HEARTS RIPE FOR HARVEST: ANCIENT ARCHITECTURE TO MODERN LANDMARK
Since the Time of Legends
The site of Hagai Sophia has been a site of worship since the Emperor Constantine the Great built a cathedral there in 325 AD, but legend tells us people may have been worshiping there for even longer. Constantine’s cathedral was reportedly built on a site which had traditionally been used for pagan worship. This sort of geographical practicality is a familiar theme throughout the world and it continues until today.
In ancient times, pagan worship was often associated with hilltops, and, as you can see in the picture above, Hagai Sophia certainly dominates the horizon. However, the cathedral Constantine built is not the building you see today.
Constantine built his cathedral as a permanent testimony to his Savior, Jesus Christ. He overturned the religious status quo after Christ came to him in a vision and he was determined to spread the Gospel. Sadly, his human determination did not protect his cathedral.
Within 80 years (404 AD) the cathedral was damaged by fire. The population of Constantinople rioted because, after a flurry of political machinations, their archbishop was banished for a second time. The riots resulted in a fire. After the fire, the cathedral was rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Constans I and the restored building was rededicated in 415 by the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosis II.
But the cathedral’s woes did not end there. It burned again in 532 under the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian I. It was Justinian I who envisioned the beautiful building we see today in Turkey. His masterpiece only took six years to build, being completed in 537.
Justinian’s vision had been a little too grand. The dome collapsed in 558 and was restored in 562, only to collapse twice more. The determined Byzantines kept at it and eventually made it smaller with enforcement added to the outside. While Constantine’s cathedral building did not last, his efforts did live on in the succession of buildings occupying the hilltop on which he chose to build.
Since the time of the Byzantine Empire, Hagai Sophia has overlooked the city, but almost as soon as the architecture of the cathedral became stable, the city itself became unstable. Constantinople played a key political and religious role throughout the Crusades, which began in 1096. Power ebbed and flowed between Constantinople and Rome according to who was in charge.
In 1204 the city became a political ploy. A group of Venetian Crusaders on their way to free Jerusalem were persuaded to help a king regain control of Byzantium. The Crusaders did their job, but the people rejected their restored monarch, and after he was deposed, he was murdered. That left a lot of unpaid Venetian Crusaders, who preceded to extract their payment out of the city by looting Hagai Sophia, only leaving the building intact. The cathedral continued to stand, though it required rebuilding refitting until the arrival of the Ottomans
Enter the Ottomans
Due to a prophesy by Mohammed, the Hagai Sophia was a very special target. Mohammed said the first Muslim to pray there was promised a place in heaven. When Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, he went directly to Hagai Sophia where he found a local man looting. Mehmet was having none of that and he began a 470 year long occupation of the building as a mosque.
Like Christian predecessors, the new Islamic caretakers continued to build and rebuild the edifice adding ever more magnificent accoutrements to the venerable old edifice.
After the end of World War I, Turkey was divided up into bits and pieces and the mosque within Hagai Sophia was not its greatest concern. However, by 1934 the building had been secularized and a year later it became a museum.
Though not being used for worship services, for over 80 years (the lifespan of Constantine’s original cathedral) the world visited Istanbul to admire Hagai Sophia. Careful restorations were carried out during this time and Sophia returned to her former countenance.
Artisans painstakingly coaxed the Christian decorations out from behind the Islamic “improvements”. Admired by all, the museum was particularly loved by Christians who were amazed by decorations originally applied in the days of Byzantium.
In 2006, worship returned to Hagai Sophia, but the worship did not match the architectural restoration’s devotion to Christianity. A small prayer room for staff members, both Christian and Muslim, was opened. In 2013, the Muslim call to prayer returned to the minarets. Then, on July 1, 2016, Muslim prayer services returned.
A Christian Landmark No More
The tide has turned against the Christian attributes of Hagai Sophia. In 2017, the Turkish government limited tourist access to the museum to Mondays, and even that access is only available until October 31. Rumors suggest it will be closed to tourism and like in the days of the Ottomans, Christians will have to receive a special permit to enter the mosque.
Though precious to Christians for its history, Hagai Sophia is only a building. The Christian Church is the Body of Believers. Whatever happens to Hagai Sophia, the Spirit is moving in Turkey. Even now, in rebellion against the privations imposed by Islamic politicians, Muslims are seeking information about Jesus Christ. Expatriate Christians from Central Asia and the Middle East have communities with hidden churches. Satellite TV and the Internet are used to ferret out the Good News. And GHM is there.
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