Erasing Lines at The Hagia Sophia, Turkey

Posted on
Mar 27, 2017

Islamophobia has, understandably, been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been watching as it slowly spreads across America – perhaps it’s always been around, just under the surface, but in recent months, with the election of our new President, it’s come to a rolling boil. He has villified Americans and foreigners alike, accused the Muslim community of sheltering radicalized terrorists, and signed an arbitrary Muslim ban on immigrants and visitors to America. (Now in its second iteration, after the first one was struck down on grounds it was unconstitutional).

The executive order is the manifestation of a multitude of shitty ideas. That all Muslims are terrorists. That denying refugees (many of them fleeing those exact terrorist groups we fear) into the United States will somehow make us safer. That Islam itself is the problem. And that somehow becoming isolationist will protect us.

It tries to draw a line of demarcation between “us” and “them.”

View of mosques from the upper floor of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul

Turkey was my first and only trip to a Muslim country. And I wondered if this line of demarcation – albeit a slightly different version – existed there as well. I particularly wondered if we would notice it more markedly as Americans, and, in Rand’s case, as a Jew.

Somewhat surprisingly, it did not, despite the fact that people rather instantly identified us as Jews (which I found jarring – a very, very small percentage of my ancestry is Jewish). Without preamble, the owner of a sweet shop walked up and offered me candies noting that they were Kosher; a tour guide looked at me for a moment, asked where my family was from, and the said, “You’re Ashkenazi, yes?”

I was dumbfounded. He explained that a large percentage of the population in Turkey had Jewish ancestry. New research suggests that Ashkenazi Jews descended from here. And while many Jews are leaving the country for Israel or America, it soon became apparent to me that the lines between “us” and “them” are greatly blurred in Turkey.

No where was this better captured than the Hagia Sophia.


No single religion can lay claim to it. It was originally built in 537 AD as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and remained so for nearly 900 years, despite a brief 50-year stint in the 13th century during which is was converted to a Roman Catholic church. It became a mosque until 1453 (after Constantinople fell at the hands of Sultan Mehmet II) and remained as such until the 1930s, after which is was turned into a museum. (In Turkish, the name is Ayasofya, a far more phonetic spelling of its name.)

Over the centuries it has been decimated by earthquakes, desecrated by Crusaders, pillaged by invaders, looted by the Ottomans. The copper roof cracked. The interior fell into disrepair and was damaged by moisture and decades of neglect. It was engulfed by fire and rebuilt, twice. Today it is in a state of restoration, one with an indeterminable end date. The building, majestic and massive, has been through so many incarnations that it’s impossible to tie it to one religion.


I suspect this concept resonated with Rand. He identifies as atheist, but he’s Jewish by ethnicity, and when we first met and he told me he loved Christmas so we put a Star of David on top of our tree.


Entering the Hagia Sophia, he was quiet and wide-eyed. When he finally spoke, it was to tell me that this was one of the most remarkable places he had ever seen.

The building’s mosaics harken back to its time as a basilica. There were saints and apostles, the virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.


Architectural details that looked distinctly like those I’d seen in Catholic churches across Europe.


Did I mention I’m a recovering Catholic? There is something strangely familiar about every church I walk into. Every representation of a Savior I inherited, or a saint whose name I could never keep straight, is like an old friend. One who I don’t call often enough, because we really don’t see eye-to-eye on a couple of things and have grown apart.


Alongside these mosaics are giants disks with Islamic calligraphy written on them – erected when the building became a mosque.


This was perhaps my favorite feature of the Hagia Sophia – the positioning of the disks alongside the Christian motifs seemed to acknowledge that its new identity did not erase its old one.


We all exist together.

There were other points of familiarity in the massive Cathedral. The six-pointed star (at the top of the chandelier) is a common symbol of Judaism, but does not exclusively belong to that faith. We saw it repeated time and again across mosques in Turkey, Rand pointing it out to me each time.


Today, different groups each have their designs on the Hagia Sophia. Some say that it should be be restored to its original function as a Christian Church. Others argue that it should be a Mosque. In the meantime, there is a small space designated as a prayer room for the museum’s Christian and Muslim staff. Twice a day the call to prayer rings out from the minarets of the Hagia Sophia. But because it is a museum, visitors may enter without removing their shoes, and women are not required to cover their hair, as we did in the mosques throughout the city.

In the present, the Museum straddles the lines of demarcation that so many are trying to draw in indelible ink. There is no us or them, there is simply a long and storied history written in calligraphy and mosaic.

Leave a Comment

  • Fascinating! Let’s hope they keep it as a museum.

  • Theresa

    This is one of my all time favorite posts of yours, G.
    I also am a recovering Catholic, and I also identify most closely with atheism. But religion in general is fascinating (albeit kind of terrifying) to me and I still enjoy visiting the Roman Catholic Church now and then just to remind myself of my roots and get that sense of nostalgia that the smell of incense and the recitation of the nicene creed bring with them. We try to expose our kids to a variety of beliefs (they’ve meditated with the Quakers, rang the temple bell at the festival of Ganesh, and of course have attended a myriad of Christian denominations with family). We don’t want them broadsided or caught unaware of what is out there when evangelicals make their advances. Anyway… I digress.
    One other thing… Have you ever read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett? It is one of the best damn books I’ve ever read and I can no longer see a cathedral without thinking of that book. If you haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
    Thanks for sharing the beauty of blurred lines. This post makes me happy.

  • Stacy Egan

    Beautiful post.

  • I love this post, and I wish the world in general could learn from this blur the lines. I hope they keep it as a museum, I would love to see it one day.

  • Really enjoyed this one. It’s getting so hard to talk about anything in the US. I’m always baffled about where all the hate is coming from, because it just doesn’t seem natural. At least new conversations are starting up. That’s the only silver lining I can think of :-

  • Andi Plummer

    This is #1 on my list of places to go to and after this post, it makes me want to even more! As an art history major it’s one of the ultimates. Cannot wait to visit. Thank you for the pictures and history!

  • Somehow it reminds me of parents who constantly berate their millenial kids about how during times, playtime means going outside, mingling with other kids, while kids nowadays know only how to play with smartphones and computers. When actually, we can all co-exist. Haha.

    In a more related remark, Turkey has been getting people’s attentions, beckoning all of us to pay a visit soon.

  • Gus

    The church when it was built was built for Christianity. There were no Catholics/Anglicans/Orthodox/etc. In fact Islam did not exist. Although there was an eastern and western Church they were united until 1054 AD when they officially split. The Icons are of Cretan art UNLIKE most Catholic churches built after the split. The city of Konstantinople was the wealthiest city in the world, where it is estimated that 70% of the world’s wealth resided back then. The Crusaders that represented the western church desecrated and pillaged the city 4 times before the Ottoman’s invaded. The shield of David also exists engraved on the balconies closest to the altar. This was a decorative motif. This decorative motif can be found all over Muslim nations; in fact it was first used by Israeli’s originally as a decorative motif. The shield of David became a symbol for Judaism in the 19th Century. First it symbolized the Zionist community and then adapted by the broader Jewish community. Of interest is that Rothschild translates to ‘Red Shield’, the most famous Zionist.

More from The Blog

On Instagram @theeverywhereist

Instagram has returned invalid data.

All Over The Place

Buy my book and I promise I'll never ask you for anything again.