Every day, we’ve been doing intense tours of the city from about 9:30am until 6pm. Many of the points on our itinerary have been mosques, but yesterday we were able to visit the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate and look at the oldest synagogue in Istanbul. The city is absolutely packed, and one of my favorite things about many of these spaces has been the quiet and calmness of a religious space and the futility of much discussion other than exchanges of “wows.”
The Hagia Sofia was for many years an Orthodox patriarchate until the Ottomans conquered the city of Constantinople and converted the building into a mosque. In the 1930s, the then secularized Turkish government changed it from a mosque to a museum.
In the process of changing from an Orthodox to Muslim religious space, the most obvious visual alteration was made to the mosaics. In Islam, it is forbidden to make images of God, which then translates to images of people or animals. The ornate mosaics of the Hagia Sofia during the Orthodox years, which included many portraits of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist, and leaders of the Eastern Roman Empire, were covered in plaster for several hundred years. When the Hagia Sofia was turned into a museum, careful restoration work was done to uncover some of the mosaics, but even so, they are not in perfect condition.