This most extraordinary building (pronounced EYE-uh Sophia) was a cathedral for more than a thousand years. After the Turkish conquest, it spent the next five centuries as a Muslim mosque. It was completed in 558 A.D., and although parts of it have been damaged by earthquakes, fires and wars, it's still there. We can still walk its halls and examine its rooms.
Come on. I'll sneak you in. Let's check it out.
The seven churches mentioned in the New Testament - Ephesus, Smyrna, Antioch, etc. - were all in Turkey. So was Tarsus. Paul was from Tarsus. So are these doors. They are made of solid bronze and were brought to Istanbul in the 2nd century from a temple in Tarsus.
The Haghia Sophia as we see it today is the third church to stand on this site. The first was built in 360 A.D. but burnt down in 404. It was built and rebuilt until it became the structure we're seeing now. And it remained a Christian church until the Turks overtook the city after the fall of Constantinople. On the afternoon of May 29, 1453, Mahmet II strolled into the building and announced that Christianity was over and ordered the Haghia Sophia converted to a mosque. The Turks set about, right away, covering over all the Christians' art - including mosaics, paintings and crosses, and punched out all their stain-glass windows. Then they added their own Muslim touches - like the "pulpit" above. And this - a place for Muslims to wash before they pray. I never knew, until I went to a mosque this week, that Muslims pray five times a day, and must wash their hands, face, and feet before praying. That explains the fountains and faucets everwhere.
Not only do you have to be clean before entering a mosque, you can't wear your shoes inside, either. You have to take them off and walk the marble floor in your socks, carrying your shoes in a crumpled plastic bag over your shoulder. I try to imagine what would happen at my place of worship at home if we all suddenly decided to take off our shoes and walk around barefoot during church.
It's hilarious to me.
Since the Haghia Sophia is now museum and not a mosque, we can keep our shoes on. And speaking of it serving as a museum, sometime after the 1920s, excavations began to uncover the original Christian artwork that was covered or buried by centuries of Muslims.
This mosaic, completed in the 500s A.D., was altered several times throughout history, but now shows Mary, John the Baptist, and Jesus....
That's gold, folks. Real gold tiles. And so are some of these, which also depict Jesus:
As does that one, which beams Mary and baby Jesus down at you from the ceiling of a golden dome.
There's so much I want to tell you and show you about this spectacular place. But I'm not a history or religious scholar - Christian, Muslim or otherwise. If you're interested, you can read a cursory introduction to what you're viewing by clicking here. If you're interested.
All I can tell you for sure is that the Haghia Sophia is an important symbol in Christian history. It was built to glorify and worship God in thanks for the price Jesus paid for us on the cross.
Oh, the cross. Centuries of enemies have tried to destroy its message. To erase its significance. To squelch its power. Here they even tried to fill it with plaster and hide it from the world:
It didn't work. And it won't. The cross lives on. I think that's the silent, powerful message of the Haghia Sophia. I think that's the reason it affected me so deeply. I think that's the reason why this building may be one of my favorite on earth....
The Haghia Sophia. From Constantine to me, it's still a glowing testament to the fact that the message of the cross continues to change lives. I never anticipated such a powerful reminder of that in Turkey....