Hagia Sophia: A palimpsest in five acts

Hagia Sophia: A palimpsest in five acts
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. (Photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

Those of us who love her will wring our hands at the injustice meted out to the Hagia Sophia earlier this month. It appals and offends on many levels. But what is simple injustice when you have sung the ‘Dies Irae’ so many times before? To have known both catastrophe and genius and to have accepted each with forbearance? This is the promise and this is the destiny; the price of having existed for a thousand years and more.

Saint Sophia, Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Great Wisdom, Aya Sofia. There have been so many forms to the pristine rose.

Over the course of an astonishing 15 centuries, this domed treasure on a hill has been witness to a wide disparity of scenes. Like the city she inhabits she has served as both cradle, as well as cemetery, to the myriad civilisations which have sought her sustenance. In this way, she is essentially a palimpsest; a stratified layer upon layer of memory and preservation. Like the vastness of the Bible, hers is a story played out over an eternity of time. To define is ultimately to limit her. And so what follows is merely a supplication –a few scenes from her many acts…


Act I, 988

The fabled Hagia of Constantinople is already over four centuries old, and has accrued a treasure of relics from all parts of the Byzantine world. Mosaics and frescoes in gold and lapis lazuli depict Christ, the Virgin Mary and a succession of virile emperors. It is in this year that Vladimir of Kiev, King of Russia must choose a religion, and so he sends emissaries to investigate the faith of each of his neighbours: Latin Christianity, Greek Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Put off by Islam’s distaste for alcohol, dissuaded by Judaism’s tribalism, he waits to hear from his emissaries just returned from Byzantium. 

The emissaries, intoxicated, attempt to recreate the otherworldly atmosphere. Their tale is one full of awe – of the veins of gold, the clouds of heavy incense and the comforting ritual which the radiant church gives off.  The building soars impossibly high – 15 stories, by our modern metrics – yet retains an intimacy for the believer. We can imagine too, how the rustle of the heavy thread of the garments worn by those in the church – stiff gold-laden caftans favoured by the Byzantines, rich silk coverings worn by Chinese merchant traders who visited – must have contributed to the feelings of inadequacy on the part of the emissaries. 

“When we stood in the temple,” they are said to have told him on their return, “we hardly knew whether or not we were in heaven for, in truth, upon earth it is impossible to behold such glory and magnificence.  There, verily, God has His dwelling among men, and the worship of other countries is as nothing. Never can we forget the grandeur which we saw. Whoever has enjoyed so sweet a sight can never elsewhere be satisfied, nor will we remain longer as we are.”

The persuasiveness of the Grand Mosque of Damascus, it seems, has been eclipsed by the paradise on earth to be found within the Hagia. The king decides to become a convert to the Greek Church.

Te deum laudamus, she exults breathlessly, to you God we praise.

Act II, 1204

We have moved forward 200 years, to a year which will serve to upend many of the notions of Christian brotherhood – and it is not a good year for our great basilica as she approaches her seventh century. 

The intervening period has not been favourable to the once-glittering Byzantine Empire. In the west its reach covers modern-day Italy to go with the Greek isles and Asia Minor; in the east its heartland are the vast Anatolian plains, the breadbasket for the empire. Till the 11th century it had been a splendid and dominant power, the champion of Christendom in the fight against the Islamic juggernaut. But the rise of other Christian kingdoms – the Normans, the Venetians, the Genoese, the Flemish amongst others – now threatens the Byzantines. There is also the question of ecclesiastical spirit. The Normans are famed not only for their martial spirit but also for their Catholic piety, and their allegiance is to the Bishop of Rome. But the Byzantine Church has its own Patriarch. Then there are the issues of the Trinity, the existence of purgatory, even the role of unleavened bread, to divide the Eastern and Western Churches. These religious differences, “deep seated in origin and exacerbated by politics during the course of the eleventh century”, means that the two are now in undeniable schism. Ultimately, Christian unity counts for little when weighed against the lure of booty. The shocking result is the Fourth Crusade’s side-foray to Constantinople, which results in the city unwittingly being besieged and engulfed by Western Crusaders. 

In the crisp, spare prose of the medieval scholar Sir Steven Runciman, “the sack of Constantinople is unparalleled in history. For nine centuries the great city had been the capital of Christian civilisation. It was filled with works of art that had survived from ancient Greece and with the masterpieces of its own exquisite craftsmen. The Venetians indeed knew the value of such things. Wherever they could they seized treasures and carried them off to adorn the squares and churches and palaces of their town. But the Frenchmen and Flemings were filled with a lust for destruction… snatching up everything that glittered and destroying everything they could not carry, pausing only to murder and to rape.

In an account of the horrors reported to him, Innocent III records how within even Hagia Sophia, drunken crusaders could be seen tearing down the silken hangings and pulling the great silver iconostasis to pieces, while sacred icons were trampled underfoot. A woman “set herself on the Patriarch’s throne and began to sing a ribald song. Nuns were ravaged in their convents.”*

All that is left, all that she has the strength to do, is to silently chant the Dies Irae as part of the Mass of the Dead. 

This second act, then, sees the Hagia as war booty, pillaged and claimed by the Venetians under a short-lived “Latin Empire” of 60 years before being returned once more as damaged goods to a new Byzantine Patriarch. 

Despite this gross affront she accepts her fate with valour, her beauty undimmed and her authority unquestioned. She remains a sceptred sway, floating above all things impermanent. Her gold mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Jesus continue to dazzle, each of the thousands of squares responding slightly differently to the light to create a dazzling overall effect. The four squinches which hold up her great dome remain untouched. High above the ground they continue to show the huge cherubim with their folded, powder-blue wings. And up on the north balcony, in a quiet corner where the afternoon sun gently reaches, she meditates thoughtfully on the private pain of John the Baptist as it is reflected there.

She is under no illusions about the age she lives in, nor the people who supplicate within her. It is an age of constant warfare. The belief in the afterlife leads many to live with a fatalism which is unnerving. Grotesque violence and retribution is of a kind she knows future generations will scarcely comprehend. And so she moves on, wearily, for another two and a half centuries, though in her heart she knows the empire, though temporarily recovered, is moribund.

Act III, 1453

The empire is encircled, feeble. As the man in the middle between two more aggressive powers – Western Christianity and Ottoman Islam – Byzantium has exhausted itself by fighting on two fronts. Its vast lands heave no more. The Italian lands have been lost to the Christian Franks, and the heartland of Anatolia, which gave the empire most of its soldiers and its food, have been absorbed into the sultan’s dominion. The latter’s armies have even reached the Danube. 

Of course it makes sense to steel oneself for the destruction which must inevitably follow. Yet, a little vainly perhaps, she still has time to admire each of the new additions as they periodically appear to adorn her. By some curious alignment of the constellations, there are occasional periods in human history in which gradual political decline is accompanied by last-gasp cultural and artistic outbursts. Such is the one in which the Hagia now allows herself to temporarily luxuriate. It is known as the Paleologan era, after the Greek emperor who with a cold hand clings on to power over 50 years with grim determination, despite the jewels in his crown gradually being replaced with glass. During this time fresh artworks and frescoes are created for her, each displaying a vigour not seen elsewhere. She allows herself an inward smile despite herself. For the rest of the human inhabitants along the Bosphorus, it is a damp, melancholic time. 

When will her new master arrive to claim her? There have been 12 previous attempts by Muslim armies to capture Constantinople, and over the course of the centuries, a considerable body of prophetic literature has developed which promises the capital will fall to Islam before the End of the World. In April that year, having constructed a fortress at Rumeli Hisari on the Eastern side of the Bosphorus (thus isolating Constantinople from its grain supplies on the Black Sea) the Sultan Mehmet begins his siege of the city. By May, he is victorious and enters the city in triumph through the Adrianople Gate. His troops acclaim him as “Fatih”, the Conqueror. 

But Mehmet has waited the customary three days to enter after the city was taken; three days in which his troops are allowed to plunder. The city is ransacked, plundered, raped. There is much callous slaughter – even, sacrilegiously, within her own confines when the gates are battered down. 

“The blood ran in rivers down the steep streets from the heights of Petra towards the Golden Horn,” notes the Venetian Niccolo Barbaro, a ship’s doctor whose diary is a contemporaneous account of the siege. Miserere, have mercy, Hagia weeps; and yet it is ever thus, she recovers her composure to announce stoically, for only I remember the violations of the Crusaders and the Iconoclasts before. 

Her new master is a mixture of cruelty and humility, as befits a conqueror of God from those times. He knows that his name will reverberate through history as the man who brought to an end a thousand years of empire and will create a new one on its ruins. “Stubborn in his purpose, and bold in everything, he aspires to more fame than that of Alexander the Great,” records the Italian contemporary Languschi. Mehmet’s faith must be rewarded. 

By experience he has come to learn the perils of Pericles’ words, that it is a dangerous thing to acquire an empire. And so as he dismounts at the entrance to Hagia Sophia, he falls to his knees, pouring a handful of earth over his turban as a gesture of humility toward what stands before him. His new mistress is famed as much throughout the Islamic world as the Christian lands.

Mehmet will put a forceful end to the bloodshed and looting. He will find a new patriarch, the Greek monk Gennadius, and install a seat for him at the other great church, that of the Holy Apostles – second only in size and repute to the Hagia herself. He will converse over many hours with the patriarch on ecclesiastical matters (his mother having been born Christian) and between the two of them they will work out a new constitution for Mehmet’s Greek subjects. They will be formed as a milet, or self-governing community within the Ottoman Empire, under the responsibility and protection of the new patriarch. The Jews of the city will similarly have their chief rabbi restored. Mehmet will also set about restoring the city with alacrity and vigour. Noble Byzantines will be allowed to return, and Armenian, Jewish and Venetian craftsmen, artisans and merchants encouraged to settle in the city. Ambassadors from across Western Christendom are to be welcomed back. Within a decade, the city’s population will increase four-fold and with it a return to prosperity and artistic excellence. 

Yet the implication of one particular act threatens like no other to imperil the Hagia. At his first supplication at the basilica, he declares she shall be transformed into a mosque, under the name Aya Sofia Jami Kabir, or the Great Mosque of the Hagia Sophia. A minaret is constructed for the azaan and within a few short days the Fatih attends the Jumaa prayers. 

What went through Mehmet’s mind as he announced Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque? Not known to be a particularly religious man, was he simply flushed with victory and seeking to thank God for his victory? Did he see it as a necessary step in order to establish the new Ottoman Empire in the old city, even as he sought to extend the multi-religious nature of the city in other aspects? Did he even consider the precedent established by the second Caliph of Islam, Omar, who upon accepting the surrender of Jerusalem after a bloodless siege, famously chose to respect the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and offer it his protection rather than seek its conversion? Was his hand stilled at all by the Quranic injunction to protect all places of monotheistic worship regardless of religion

The answer to the last two questions clearly seems to be not. And so the Hagia, now renamed, assumes an Islamic countenance. 

She remains beautiful, though. She suggests, rather than reveals. No light veil can diminish her soaring buttresses and marble columns. Though great discs inscribed with the name of the Prophet and the First Caliphs are mounted up high, Aya Sophia continues to exude calmness and spirituality. Her dome is still a reflection of the sky, except now it does so through the prism of a delicate Muslim sensibility. The golden light of the early evening is still diffused on her walls; for her visitors she retains the ability to shelter and not intimidate.  

Above all, she understands that she must endure. This too, shall pass.

A short while later, she ushers in a thousand years of her existence; her masonry solid, her arches everlasting.


Speak now. Speak with passion, she commands, of the glories of that new age, of my esteemed reimagining as Aya Sofia. Of the majesty of the Ottomans. How they created an insurmountable treasure trove in everything they set their minds to. How Mehmet and his first 23 successors lived above me in the great palace of the Topkapi Sarayi, whose gardens and pavilions graced the acropolis hill at the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, where their waters meet and flow into the Sea of Marmara. 

Tell limpid tales of how what they created was the world’s envy, a grand seduction. I never smelt a rose so sweet, nor swooned at the promise of a tulip so delightedly, as during my long service to them. 

Regale everyone with verses of how my masters were always gentle, and wanton, and capricious. How their kisses impaled my love and left a cold scent in the morning. 

How if ever a word was meant to encompass them, it was “cornucopia,” The Abundance.

Act IV, 1934

“‘You have been away a very long time.’

“‘Oh, centuries and centuries; so long,’ she said, ‘that I’m sure I’m dead and buried and this dear old place is heaven.”

It has now become 1934, and half a millennia has passed. After what promised to be an eternal age – first in the glorious sunlight but then, for the long afternoon, in its afterglow – the Ottoman Empire must, like all human endeavours, come to outlive its time and place. It seemed impossible once, that there’d come a time when cows would graze among the ruins of the Forum of the Caesars. In a similar fashion so too does she recall a time when it seemed an affront to reason to suggest her masters might one day be called the sick men of Europe. Yet by the end they were. And so she must inherit a new master, one with a constant hand. He tells her she’s been a chatelaine in a gilded cage. Has she been? After all this time, 550 years, she can’t quite remember. 

Still, adaptable as always, she knows she must accept her reversion with forbearance and equanimity. She must learn to sing in the lost key. 

The Hagia Sophia, once more; no longer trapped but now a museum. 

The man who has cast off her veil has also abandoned the Sultan’s fez. He is dressed in the European style and is determined that though the city stands aside two continents, that Hagia’s restored gaze should now tilt firmly towards Europe. Mustafa Kemal is aloof, haughty, enclosed in temperament. He is also overflowing with ability and ambition. As a military cadet in the coastal outpost of Monastir, he first began to understand the true condition of the empire as it was by the start of the 20th century. What a deplorable picture it was. During the Great War of 1914 to 1918, Kemal had become a war hero, responsible for the Ottomans’ sole victory against the Allies in Gallipoli. Appalled by the dissolution he found himself surrounded by, he longed to restore his country’s prestige – but as a country, not an empire. 

Gradually, over a decade, he had become the totem for a secret reform movement backed by the military which rose up against the sultan. By war’s end he was confident enough to resign his commission whereupon he was elected president of the Grand National Assembly. The empire having been resoundingly defeated by the Allies, a grim tug-of-war now took place between the Kemal and the sultan over its body – but the Allies, recognizing his power, prefered to negotiate directly with him. 

By 1922, he emerged victorious. Dominating the National Assembly, he drove to abolish the sultanate and modernise the nation he’d freed. With the empire vanished, he resolved to be Ätaturk – the father of the Turks; and under his vision Turkey should resemble as soon as possible civilised Western countries in outlook and progress. Is he creating something noble, or merely a “vainglorious Western façade grafted onto Eastern lands” that time will ultimately cast aside?” It is a question which will hang in the air for some time, ultimately coming to haunt future generations.

As a museum Hagia welcomes back all that is best and magnanimous of both Christian and Islamic worlds. The Christian iconography restored, they now take their place alongside Islamic calligraphy and design. 

This fourth act ends with a typical 21st-century scene, as millions of visitors pour in to see her. On a typical day, “there are English voices, and German, and French, and Japanese, tourists dressed in clothes that seem in modern times to be all alike, a world of jeans and T-shirts, and the man-made textiles of travelling clothes in chemical colours. There is a sprinkling of women in black yasmaks from the Arab countries too.


Act V, July 2020

Aren’t final acts meant to bring closure to the tension rather than heighten it? Through what curse of the gods do we even require a fifth act – and such an atavistic one at that? But one has been ordained for this month. The Turkish nationalist Recep Erdoğan has just fulfilled a pledge made to his conservative Islamic heartland that Hagia Sophia is to be restored, once again, to a mosque, trampling her Unesco World Heritage Status and sending ripples of consternation through the religious world. Erdoğan is a direct attack on the secular vision of Ataturk. In his 15 years in power, he has strengthened and reinvigorated his base, while simultaneously dividing his country profoundly. Turkey is Islamic, hence Aya Sofia is for the true believers only, his message proclaims in a voice which commands when it should soothe.

Epilogue – The Palimpsest

And so, as we stand here today the Hagia, venerable with age and with wisdom, is once again a mosque. She is reserved only for the believer and not the world entire.

We have come to the end of our epic play. Like the glides of a bowed kamenchah, it has started off languidly with deep strokes but the final notes have ended in a frenzy. Before the curtain falls, we are in need of a final sentence, a denouement to tie together these doubtful series of occurrences which have been laid before you.

How will the final sentence read?


In the first reading, we come back to Mehmet in May 1453; Mehmet the valiant conqueror whose misjudgment on that fateful day unknowingly unleashed a strand of narrative which 550 years later, Erdoğan has seen fit to resolve. Contemplating the ruined columns of the destroyed city, perhaps even moved by the acts of desecration which he and his army had committed on the Hagia, Mehmet is said to have sadly worded a melancholy distich of the Persian poet Saadi:

The spider is now the curtain-holder in the Palace of the Caesars.

The owl hoots its night-call on Afrasiab’s towers.

In this version, the desolation of the poet’s words mirror the empty heart of the current tyrant Erdoğan, a seemingly pious man who in substance is bereft of any true spirituality or spiritual wisdom. A man with no plans for the future who cynically uses the past to sow further division between Hagia’s Eastern and Islamic past. As the azaan sounds once again amidst the colonnade of memories, the words of the poet mirror the litany of broken treasures which now lie scattered in the dust – of the magnanimous version of the faith, of the severed ties between eastern Christianity and Islam.

The stories we once belonged to have been lost. Just as you do not know who we are, where we came from or where we are going, you don’t even know which part of the story we fit into, and that is even worse. After passing through so many misadventures and catastrophes, after walking such great distances, it is almost as if we too have forgotten our stories, forgotten who we are . Orhan Pamuk

It is twilight in the ageing city.

But there is an alternate reading. Here, the Hagia speaks directly to her audience. Shed no tear, she says, not without reason was I called the Holy Wisdom. Do not try to define me. Just as there were those who tried to define my beginning, so too now are there those who seek to define my end. I will submit to whatever new garment you choose to cloak me in, but I will not wear it forever. Do not assume that you own me. You may possess me, you may worship me – but I will outlast you. 

I am a palimpsest. Layer upon layer, I will endure. Then at the last, when the final layer is to be added, it will be added by me.


There remains extant within Hagia Sophia today, the empty tomb of the Venetian Doge, Enrico Dandolo. He was nearly 90 and blind when, in 1204, he was the first Venetian ashore at the capture and sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. A year later he was buried in the basilica. Yet when the Byzantines returned, 60 years later, it is said they took the bones of Dandolo and threw them to the dogs in the street.  

Perhaps, ultimately, this is the final lesson for those attempting to find a single meaning for the Hagia Sophia. That there is none. No one and nothing, including the great basilica herself and all that she stands for, can be considered sacrosanct or permanent for all time. 

Those of us who love her may well wring our hands at the injustice of the past week. We are appalled. But what is simple injustice when you have sung the Dies Irae so many times before? To have known both catastrophe and genius and to have accepted each with equal forbearance?  This is the promise and this is the destiny; the price of having existed for a thousand years and more. DM

Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA’s largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab

References and attribution:

Oliver Bullough, The Last Man in Russia, 2013

Sir Steven Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople, 1965

Sir Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades Volume III, 1954

*The original text refers to the woman as a prostitute, but this seems not only unlikely but very possibly a sexually-loaded and coded image not uncommon from this period of patriarchy – which we as modern readers are now understanding enough to view with suspicion.

John Freely, The Grand Turk (2009)

Reza Aslan, No god but God (2005)

The Quran, Sura 22 verse 40

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

Muhammed Asad, The Road to Mecca (1954)

Mary Lee Settle, Turkish Reflections (1991)

Orhan Pamuk, Three characters in search of an artist, The Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, Number 85 (2004)


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