When the Roman emperor Constantine moved his capital from Rome to Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) in the early fourth century, he did so because he wanted to position his government more strategically at the crossroads of the known world. Of course, Constantine was more than a mere strategist; he was also the first Christian emperor and he privileged the faith through legislation, favorable tax policies, and the construction of spectacular cathedrals, including the Hagia Sophia. Perhaps no other building in the world so concretely stands at the intersection of East and West, just as no other building equally symbolizes the populist threat to religious minorities.
This is the third building on the site to be named “Hagia Sophia,” literally translated as “Holy Wisdom,” but understood by Christians to be a personification of Christ as Wisdom. The Constantinian church burned in the early fifth century, and the second church, like the first, was destroyed by fire in 532. But neither of those early structures, with their modest size and wooden roofs, could compare to the civilization-defining building commissioned by the emperor Justinian in 532 and opened in 537.
To say that the Hagia Sophia was the largest church in the world for a thousand years does not really do justice to its size, grandeur, or influence on subsequent Christian architecture. To say that the Hagia Sophia was the main cathedral of the Byzantine capital does not sufficiently convey the extent to which the church remains the single greatest symbol of an empire that lasted a thousand years, or a global Orthodox religious community that now exceeds 250 million people.
Hagia Sophia, like the city itself, has shifted hands many times since the Byzantines first worshiped there. From 1204 to 1261 it was under the control of the Crusaders, who installed their own clergy and performed the liturgy exclusively in the Latin Rite. A Byzantine army retook the city in 1261, but the Crusader colonization of the Christian East left the Byzantine world internally divided and economically devastated. In 1453, an Ottoman army led by Mehmed II conquered what was left of the empire. Mehmed moved quickly to transform Hagia Sophia into a mosque—removing the altar and plastering the iconography. Ottoman Istanbul soon became the political center of the Islamic world, and while the Ottomans would build many impressive mosques, none could compare to the Hagia Sophia in size or stature.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, a new, highly secular government emerged in Turkey and its leader, Kemal Atatürk, converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum as part of a wide-ranging plan to break from the historic authority of Islam in Ottoman society. Atatürk was pro-West and secular, but he was also highly authoritarian and nationalistic. He advanced the myth of a pure “Turkish” identity that left little room for religious or cultural minorities. Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Syrians had little space in Atatürk’s Turkey, despite the fact that these communities had been there for centuries before the first Turks had arrived.