Hagia Sophia through the back door

In July 2020, Turkish President Erdoğan restored by decree the mosque status of the Hagia Sophia Cathedral, which was transformed into a mosque in 1453, after the capture of Constantinople, and then into a museum in 1934 by Atatürk’s decision. This decision, by which Erdoğan sought to favor his conservative voter base and illustrate his own authoritarian power, sparked protest around the world. The public nature of the museum made it a kind of bridge between cultures and religions, and its non-denominational accessibility symbolized that it was not only part of Islam, but of the world’s heritage, a common cultural treasure of humanity. Sharia, of course, does not recognize such categories. But what will happen to the beautiful Byzantine mosaics rediscovered after 1934 and made publicly visible, which are obviously incompatible with an active mosque, since this is why they were whitewashed in 1453? And how can hundreds of thousands of tourist visit a cult place that serves prayer? Erdoğan dismissed these problems: “Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims”, he said. That promise has since been proven to be a lie.

At the time of the decision, these questions were not relevant, because the country was still closed to tourists due to Covid. When it was possible to travel again in 2021, I visited the cathedral with curiosity. The change was big. You could enter the building without a ticket, but only to the lower level. The gallery with most of the mosaics was closed to visitors. Many people were praying in the mosque. The prominent mosaics visible from here – the image of the Mother of God with the child Jesus on the vault of the apse, above the current mihrab, and the archangel Gabriel on her left – were covered by stretched canvases.

The apse mosaic of Hagia Sophia in 2019 (above) and 2021 (below)

Before our current trip to Istanbul, news spread that the gallery had been opened. We visited the cathedral again with curiosity. The result, to put it kindly, is half-baked. The lower level can be entered only by Turkish citizens – so much for Erdoğan’s promise. The entrance to the gallery is on the back side of the church, from the side towards Topkapı Sarayı. It is a makeshift tunnel with electronic access gates. The ticket office is opposite the tunnel, with a long line in front of it for the €25 ticket (which is more expensive than the most expensive Western ticket I know, the one for the Vatican Museum). Tickets can supposedly be bought online, but according to the local guards, it is not recommended, because the electronic entry gate often does not recognize the electronic ticket code. In such cases, the ticket is reset, and a new one must be purchased by waiting for your turn in the line.

Later, I experience that online ticket buying is virtual in the strict sense of the word. In some of the overlappingmandatory sections of the poorly designed website it is simply impossible to enter data. Thus, the queue is the only way to go.

When you are finally inside, a spiral staircase takes you directly to the gallery. It has a gently sloping, knurled surface. It was obviously used for bringing up construction material fifteen hundred years ago.

You can walk around the gallery and see everything: the mosaics depicting the emperors and their spouses, the beautiful Deesis mosaic, the pictures of the three church fathers on the wall of the northern gallery facing the interior, the Viking runes scratched into the marble of the southern gallery by the bored bodyguards.

Christ Pantokrator, with Empress Zoe and her third husband, Constantine IX Monomachus on either side. Made between 1028 and 1042. The mosaic originally depicted her first husband, Romanos Argyros. Only the head was replaced in 1042 for that of her third husband.

The Mother of God, with Emperor John Komnenos and his wife Eirene (the Hungarian Piroska, daughter of St. Ladislas, King of Hungary) on her both sides. To the right, on the turning wall, the heir to the throne, Alexios, who died early. Made between 1118 and 1143

Deesis, i.e. the plea of the Mother of God and Saint John the Baptist to Christ the Pantokrator. It was made in 1261, after the reconquest of Constantinople from the Crusaders. John’s title “ὁ πρόδρομος”, the forerunner is translated as “pioneer” by the informative inscription

You can also look down on the lower level, and you can see how Turkish citizens – most of them tourists just like you, no one is praying, so the segregation is more discriminatory than religious – are walking around in the mosque. However, you cannot go down.

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And some pictures from 2021, when foreigners could admire the church also from the lower level:

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This is a particularly big loss for us Hungarians. After all, on either side of the mihrab stand the two large bronze candlesticks that King Matthias had made in Buda in Italian Renaissance style, and which Sultan Suleyman took from the Church of Our Lady in Buda Castle after the sacking of the city in 1526, along with the library, weapon collection, bronze statues and the library of Matthias’s palace as well as with the treasures of the churches of Buda and Pest. Until now, you could admire them up close, and even a sign proved their coming from Buda. Now, viewed from the gallery, they are almost indistinguishable in the covering of cult objects. As if we had been robbed a second time. Along with all of humanity.

The candlesticks on either side of the mihrab back in 2021

At the same time as the Hagia Sophia, the greatest treasure of Byzantine art, the Chora church, was also reclassified from a museum to a mosue, even though its mosaics had only recently been restored with many years of work. It was also closed immediately, and since then noises of work can be heard from it. It is rumored that it will also be opened within a mont or two. But there, all the mosaics are in the cult space of the mosque. I wonder what the combination of violence, stupidity and hypocrisy experienced in Hagia Sophia will result there?

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