Not long ago I got a Facebook invitation from a group petitioning to get Hagia Sophia turned back into a Christian Church. My gut reaction: sure, and then should we dig up Raphael and turn the Pantheon back over to the pagans? It irked me on a surprisingly deep level. It was an attempt to wipe away half a century of the structure’s history. The imperialization of history is often one of intolerance.
Hagia Sophia, the church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, rebuilt by the emperor Justinian after the riots of 532, is at present a secular museum. The church’s Byzantine glory faded when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II rode his horse into the sanctuary in 1453, claiming his place as the new heir of the Roman Empire. Robert Nelson has traced Hagia Sophia’s modern history, giving the building its due as a cultural icon, beyond any one group that has played into its ongoing rich web of participants. Now nineteenth-century Arabic medallions sit beneath the “floating” dome that allows an ethereal light into the vast space. The Virgin and Child mosaic still gazes over the basilica, unlike other Byzantine mosaics that were plastered over by the Ottomans who shied away from figural imagery. There are three forces vying for cultural claim of the sacred space: Muslims, Christians, and the secular Turkish government.
The groups haven’t always played well with each other. In 2006, Turkish protestors demonstrated against Pope Benedict XVI’s visit. Last September, a group of Greeks caused a stir by insisting on holding a religious service there despite the illegality of such an act. While the notion that civic and secular control of the structure sounds like a cozy compromise to someone who grew up with a firm separation of church and state, critics are quick to point out that state-sponsored secularism can be oppressive in its own way. Others suggest that Christians and Muslims simply share the space. (On one hand, I’ve seen it happen: the Dome of the Rock is claimed by three religions and is still standing, and there’s at least one church/synagogue in Park Slope. But two issues make me cringe a little as well. First is that shared space can also be a precarious topic; the intensity of the debate over the potential Ground Zero Mosque comes to mind. The other is that I’m not Muslim or Orthodox. Would the rest of us have even less of a claim to the grand location, despite inheriting Hagia Sophia as part of our cultural [art historical] inheritance if not our national or religious one?)
This cultural tug of war leaves the building somewhat accessible to the public—for the price of a ticket the museum is open Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 am to 4:30 pm. But accessibility does not equal security. UNESCO cites pollution and urbanization as constant threats to Istanbul’s treasures. Fergus Bordewich’s 2008 descriptions of Hagia Sophia’s grime and decay and delayed preservation efforts due to funding made my soul sink a little. I immediately began filling a change jar, saving up for a plane ticket to make my art historical pilgrimage before an earthquake swallows it whole.
What remains unclear is who is ultimately responsible for the preservation of this monument, who owns culture. It is a delicate structure that requires vast amounts of money and specialized labor to maintain, much less restore. Is any government capable of such a task? Will UNESCO prevail? Hagia Sophia’s duality as both secular and sacred space has complicated its process of being properly monumentalized. Although every structure is in some sense, a living organism—the use of it, even now, is part of its history, part of what Nelson calls a “performance” that has been “threatened with reclamation and revival.”
What is fascinating to me as I tiptoe through this complex debate is the tangible presence of a medieval building in today’s society. Do we treat its medieval religions as the same ones that continue today? Byzantine Christianity was quite different from any denomination practiced today, but its traditions live on. Islam has changed since the fifteenth century, but descendants of the Ottoman conquerors feel connected to that past. Government involvement in the structure began with Justinian, so that tradition is a medieval one as well. Hagia Sophia is not merely a medieval object that sits on display, but a still-relevant, beloved entity in the twenty-first century. The issue here is not one of faith or rightful ownership. It is one of survival, of preservation. Ah, yes, the middle ages live on.
 For tourism information see Sacred Destinations. http://www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/istanbul-hagia-sophia
 Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).
 CNN. 2006. Police hold Turkey pope protesters. November 22.
 Today’s Zaman. 2010. Liturgy at Hagia Sophia plan stirs tension. September 17. http://www.todayszaman.com/news-221875-liturgy-at-hagia-sophia-plan-stirs-tension.html
 Akyol, Mustafa. 2010. Let’s just reopen Hagia Sophia as church/mosque. Hurriyet Daily News. August 27.
 Fergus M. Bordewich, “A Monumental Struggle to Preserve Hagia Sophia,” in Smithsonian (Dec. 2008).
 Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 214.