The 1,500-year-old iconic building, Hagia Sophia - situated in Istanbul, has been a perennial symbol of the might and majesty for those who controlled the lands. From being the centerpiece of the Byzantine Empire to becoming the gem of the Ottoman Empire - Hagia Sophia has stood the test of time and became the accolade of a myriad of tales.
On Friday the first Muslim prayers took place inside the architectural marvel in 86 years, after a court in Turkey ruled in favor of its conversion back into a mosque from being a museum. Before a museum, Hagia Sophia was once one of Christianity's most famous cathedrals.
The Hagia Sophia has held the mantle of a World Heritage Site and was identified by UNESCO as a landmark of cultural significance. As the centuries old building gets a new "reintroduction", it might as well serve as a ruse to learn history.
A remnant of multiple empires
The Hagia Sophia - Ayasofya in Turkish, was originally built as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. However, its function has changed several times in the centuries since.
Completed in the year 537 and commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia was built as a church; and overlooks the Golden Horn harbor in Constantinople - presently Istanbul. It is built on the site of two previously destroyed churches and was constructed with materials brought from all over the Byzantine Empire. It took almost ten thousand workers six years to finish the building.
Byzantine Emperor Constantius commissioned construction of the first Hagia Sophia in 360 AD. At the time of the first church's construction, Istanbul was known as Constantinople, taking its name from Constantius' father, Constantine I, the first ruler of the Byzantine Empire.
The first Hagia Sophia featured a wooden roof. The structure was burned to the ground in 404 AD; during the riots that occurred in Constantinople as a result of political conflicts within the family of then-Emperor Arkadios, who had a tumultuous reign from 395 to 408 AD.
Arkadios' successor, Emperor Theodosios II, rebuilt the Hagia Sophia, and the new structure was completed in 415. The second Hagia Sophia contained five naves and a monumental entrance and was also covered by a wooden roof. A little more than one century later, the structure was burned for a second time during the "Nika revolts" against Emperor Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565.
Unable to repair the damage caused by the fire, Justinian ordered the demolition of the Hagia Sophia in 532. He commissioned to build a new basilica. The third Hagia Sophia was completed in 537. Upon its complition, EmperorJustinian is said to have said: "Glory to God who has thought me worthy to finish this work. Solomon, I have outdone you."
The church remained in Byzantine hands for almost 900 years, apart from a period between 1204 and 1261 when Crusaders raided the city and it became a Roman Catholic cathedral. However, in 1261, the Byzantines captured Constantinople again, taking over the church once more. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, tt is said that Mehmed II rode to the church on his entry into the city and stopped a man from hacking at the stones of the Hagia Sophia in an attempt to deface it. The Sultan converted the church into a mosque and over time. The Ottomans added four minarets to the structure, and plastered over the Byzantine mosaics with panels in Arabic religious calligraphy.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - the founder modern republic of Turkey, turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum. When the Hagia Sophia museum opened in February 1935, for the first time in centuries, all the Byzantine mosaics were uncovered, the plasters removed and the carpets had disappeared, allowing the structure to be seen in its original glory.
Conversion back to mosque
A Turkish religious group in 2005 had appealed to the Council of State, the country's highest administrative court, claiming that the Hagia Sophia was the property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had mentioned during the elections that he had plans to re-title the Hagia Sophia as a mosque instead of a museum, even calling the 1934 conversion a "big mistake".
Erdogan's proposal brought about ire and opposition from the Greek government, for whom, the cathedral was the main seat of the Greek Orthodox church till its conversion into a mosque, The Associated Press reported.
Since then, there has been much opposition from across the world against the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, even as Erdogan threw his weight behind the campaign.
On July 10, the Council of State published its ruling and declared the 1934 conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum by Mustafa Kamal Ataturk illegal and in non-compliance with laws, paving the way for Erdogan to officially reinstate it as a mosque.
President Erdogan signed a decree on the conversion hour after the court's ruiling and addressed the media, declaring Hagia Sophia a mosque and saying that the first Muslim prayers would begin in July 24.
According to a report by The New York Times, Erdogan in his speech quoted Mehmed II's will, which seemingly calls down curses on anyone daring to change the Hagia Sophia's status, but did not mention Ataturk at all.
The Turkish president said that deciding the purpose of the Hagia Sofia is Turkey's sovereign right but reiterated that the monument would remain open to all, reports Al Jazeera.
"Like all our other mosques, the doors of the Hagia Sophia will be open to all locals, foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims," Erdogan said.
"Being the common heritage of humankind, the Hagia Sophia will continue to embrace everyone in a most sincere, unique way, with its new status," he reportedly added.