Hagia Sophia as a mosque

After the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, the sultan repurposed this church, adding slender “pencil” minarets.

Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles (architects), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 532–537

This video focuses on Hagia Sophia after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453.

Additional resources

Hagia Sophia 3D virtual tour

Smarthistory’s free Guide to Byzantine Art e-book

For the classroom

Questions for study or discussion

Thinking about context

  • What circumstances prompted the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque?
  • Why might the Ottomans have converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque?

Thinking about this monument

  • What concrete steps were taken to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque?
  • How did the functions of Hagia Sophia change or stay the same when it was converted to a mosque?

Thinking about images and text

  • Why did the Ottomans cover the Byzantine mosaics inside Hagia Sophia?
  • What new roles did text play in the Ottoman redecoration of Hagia Sophia?

Thinking about art history

  • What do art historians mean when they speak about the “afterlife” of an artwork or monument?
  • How does Hagia Sophia illustrate the exchange of artistic traditions across cultures?

Smarthistory images for teaching and learning:

[flickr_tags user_id=”82032880@N00″ tags=”hsmosque,”]

More Smarthistory images…

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] We think of Hagia Sophia as a Byzantine church, but it also has this whole other life after the invasion of the Ottoman Turks.

Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis: [0:14] We tend to forget about that. We tend to focus on this amazing Byzantine building. We forget about its afterlife in history from 1453 until the establishment of the Turkish republic, when it became a museum.

Dr. Zucker: [0:26] Buildings are living things. They accrue meaning. They change as societies around them change. This is such a stark example.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [0:34] Because it was the most important Byzantine church, it was an obvious thing for conversion. Because mosques and churches are spaces for congregations, changing a few key things allow you to repurpose the building almost immediately.

Dr. Zucker: [0:47] Constantinople was the primary city in the Byzantine east, seen as this treasure, and within the city, the real jewel was this church.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [0:56] As the Byzantine Empire had been in financial decline and shrinking in terms of territory, this was one of the few things that got maintained and was still in good condition, where lots of other things in Constantinople weren’t in great shape when the Ottoman Turks took it in 1453.

Dr. Zucker: [1:08] I’ve read that the population had plummeted.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:11] Because of that, a lot of the smaller churches’ walls weren’t in great shape, but this building still was. It was an obvious thing to convert. Also, it’s got prime position. You can see it’s very close to the Bosphorus, and it’s also where a lot of key buildings later on are going to be built by the Ottoman Turks. It’s unsurprising that this was the first thing that was adapted and modified.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] Because it was adapted, because it was turned from an Orthodox church into a mosque, it survived.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:37] It becomes a symbol of authority. Because if this was the symbol of the Byzantine Empire’s religious authority and the Emperor’s authority, this then, by converting it, having it become a mosque, is a symbol of the sultan’s power in the city and throughout the empire. It has a huge symbolic quality of sovereignty.

Dr. Zucker: [1:54] What evidence do we have of that conversion?

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [1:57] The most obvious things are the covering up of the mosaics, but they removed some of the later paint and plastering so you can see them.

Dr. Zucker: [2:02] The mosaics were covered up not because the Muslims don’t recognize Christ as at least a prophet but because of the prohibition of figural imagery, especially within a religious space.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [2:15] Certainly that, and also, Christ, when he is depicted, he’s not depicted as Christ. He’s Jesus, and he’s a prophet. He doesn’t appear with Mary. He doesn’t appear as Christ Pantocrator, which is this very typical image in Eastern Orthodox churches. You can’t have him being shown in those ways because those are very Christian depictions of Jesus.

Dr. Zucker: [2:35] While we may not have figural images, we certainly have lots of symbols.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [2:39] Probably the most obvious thing when you come in are the enormous bits of Arabic calligraphy. Calligraphy is perhaps the most important Islamic art. Arabic and the word is critical to the foundation of Islam because the belief is that Mohammed recited the words of God as told to him directly. Arabic is very important.

[2:57] What’s interesting to me, of course, is that a lot of these roundels, which were later additions, they’re in Arabic, so a lot of the community couldn’t read them.

Dr. Zucker: [3:04] Even though they were Muslim, this still would have been a foreign language.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:06] Of course, because they spoke Turkish. When you walk into Hagia Sophia, you walk in. You proceed towards the apse, and everything looks normal until you notice that the mihrab is off-center.

Dr. Zucker: [3:15] The mihrab is the niche at the far end of the building that is a way of pointing towards Mecca.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:20] It’s the most important thing, because it has to tell you which direction you’re supposed to pray. The thing is, it’s off-center here because that’s the direction of Mecca.

Dr. Zucker: [3:28] In fact, I notice that not only is the mihrab off-center, but all of the architectural elements that encase it, that is, the platform on which it’s placed and the staircase to the right, the minbar, are all oriented together, but in opposition to the church that surrounds it.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [3:44] You don’t notice it unless you’re really paying attention. We also have the platform for the muezzin to make the call to prayer within the mosque, and then we also have the sultan’s lodge, all of which are oriented more towards the south than east, the way the building is oriented. You can have these interior additions, which reorient the space in a very powerful way.

Dr. Zucker: [4:03] I want to go back to the sultan’s lodge because it’s magnificent.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:06] It’s gorgeous. The sultan held a very special position. He’s the political authority, but around him developed a cult of personality. He was viewed as being divinely appointed, and so his person is sacred. There were very strict protocols that developed in terms of who could talk to him.

[4:23] In many ways, later on in the Ottoman Empire, he gets very isolated, but this is how he would come and worship. He has his own entrance. Then he has his own elaborate procession way in. There’s a whole balcony that he would be able to walk into. Everyone could see him, but no one could touch him. Also, it’s elevated. It’s not on the same level. He’s on a different plane above.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] Then probably the most obvious addition are the incredible minarets outside.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [4:47] These four very tall, thin pencil minarets. Pencil minarets and domes are what everyone comes to associate with Ottoman architecture. They’re the quintessential features of mosque architecture, but also of the Ottoman urban landscape.

Dr. Zucker: [4:59] By pencil minaret, you’re distinguishing them from the thicker minarets that you see maybe in Egypt. The purpose of the minaret was as a high place to call the faithful to prayer.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:08] In some senses, it’s very functional. The muezzin goes up, and he calls everyone to prayer. It’s a much better position for doing that than on the ground. Your voice can travel much further. Today, we can see the speakers, the megaphones.

Dr. Zucker: [5:20] They woke me up this morning.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [5:21] They also provide you with a great opportunity to define your skyline. By building in a distinctive style, it asserts who you are and what your identity is. It also helps all of us today who are looking at these buildings go, “Pencil minarets, must be Ottoman.”

[5:35] It’s a clear distinguishing feature because you don’t get them in Central Asia. You don’t get them in Iran. You only get them where the Ottoman Empire had a presence.

[5:43] There are two earlier ones, one built by Mehmed II and then one by Sinan, the famous architect who built many of the great monuments in Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire. Then we have two more that were added by Murad III, a sultan from the late 16th century.

[5:58] The number of minarets you have is significant. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or the Blue Mosque, which is right opposite Hagia Sophia, has six, which was a bit of a controversy when it was built because that’s the number Mecca had.

Dr. Zucker: [6:09] The Blue Mosque is such a great example of the kind of impact that Hagia Sophia as a mosque had on the architecture throughout the city.

Dr. Macaulay-Lewis: [6:16] You can’t underestimate the importance of Hagia Sophia, both in terms of the use of domes and its plan. As we go and look at other mosques and as you look at different Ottoman creations here, you’ll start to see that no matter how much there is innovation — and there is huge innovation — Hagia Sophia is always somewhere lurking in the back of an architect’s mind.

Dr. Zucker: [6:35] I can see why.

[6:36] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Hagia Sophia as a mosque," in Smarthistory, December 15, 2015, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/hagia-sophia-as-a-mosque/.