Beautiful Hagia Sophia: Between the Sacred and the Profane; Turkey Is Condemned, While Israel Gets a Pass

On 10 July, 2020, one of Turkey’s highest courts ruled in favor of reconverting the Hagia Sophia Museum to a mosque. Within an hour of the ruling, Turkish President Erdogan decreed that the 1,583 year old iconic UNESCO World Heritage cultural monument would revert to a mosque and be “open to Muslim worship.”

Wide-ranging international condemnatory responses were quick to follow. And, while Turkey has been taken behind the woodshed to be condemned, scolded, and thrashed, Israel’s recent supreme court’s ruling in favor of Jewish settlers’ stealing of Greek Orthodox church properties (in violation of international laws) in occupied Jerusalem, Palestine, as well as the vandalizing, bulldozing, and destruction of Palestinian Christian and Muslim cemeteries – is condoned and ignored.

Ah, the double standard. Et toujours la mȇme chose: One set of standards for Arabs/Muslims, and another set of standards for Israelis/Jews.


Commissioned by Byzantine Emperor Justinian and completed in 537 A.D., the church of Hagia Sophia (Grk for Holy Wisdom), a first of its kind structure and a crowning accomplishment of Byzantine architectural triumph, has been/is Constantinople’s/Istanbul’s architectural crown jewel. The Hagia Sophia is one of four largest domed-structures in the world. Consecrated as a cornerstone of Byzantine power and faith in the waning years of Rome’s collapse and descent into anarchy and chaos, the Hagia Sophia would serve as an Orthodox Christian edifice and place of worship until 1453 – the year of the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the aftermath of the Ottoman conquest of Anatolia and the fall of Constantinople.


From 1453 until 1935 Hagia Sophia served as a mosque. However, in 1935 the fervently progressive statesman and the father of the nascent Turkish Republic and its first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Hagia Sophia was converted from a mosque to a museum. An avowed secularist, Ataturk is credited with shattering the yoke of Ottoman (Old Man of Europe) decadence and moving Turkey into 20th century modernity.

The Hagia Sophia became the most visited Turkish site and is on UNESCO’s august list of World Heritage Sites.


What Rome’s Pantheon was to the Roman Emperor Hadrian, the Hagia Sophia was to the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. A first of its kind dome structure, the Pantheon served as an aspirational architectural prototype for the Hagia Sophia.

The original Pantheon was built in Rome by Agrippa as a 25 BCE pagan temple to honor all the gods. In 80 A.D. a fire destroyed the temple; Emperor Domitian rebuilt it; and in 110 A.D. another fire destroyed the rebuilt temple. In 126 A.D. the Roman Emperor Hadrian commissioned the building of the Pantheon on the site of the formerly twice-burnt Roman temples. Unlike any structure before it, the monumental cylindrical-shaped structure, with its mammoth protruding Greek style portico suspended atop symmetrically-spaced prodigiously ornate granite Corinthian style columns, was a transformative feature whose indelible impact on future architectural designs is duly noted.

In 609 AD Pope Boniface converted the Pantheon into a Christian house of worship and consecrated it as a Catholic basilica, naming it Basilica di Santa Maria ad Martyres.
The Pantheon is, by far, my favorite architectural structure.

To keep the cylindrical drum-like contour from being a grotesquely bulky visual monstrosity, chief architect Appolodorus of Damascus conceived the interior and exterior spaces as a perfect cylinder with a 142 ft. diameter floor, and an equal 142 ft. height – at the highest point of the dome. If one were to insert an enormous sphere into the interior space, an imagined perfectly-shaped sphere will have been created. The interior structure employs a 1 to 1 (height x diameter) harmonic ratio, and it utilizes thick walls with an underlay of bricks and tufa built in a mish mash of exterior/interior herring bone and arch patterns to give the structure the necessary tensile strength and to support the vastness of the dome’s spread. While the interior walls were covered with exquisite monochrome and variegated marble of varying sizes and shapes, the exterior walls were covered with lightweight travertine white marble. The receding coffered concrete-formed ceiling, built with the same lightweight tufa stone to lessen the gravitational pull, graces a 28 ft. diameter oculus that peers into the sky. For its time, this was indeed the apex of dome-on-drum construction. One observer opined that “This dome is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.” While the use of equal horizontal and vertical diameters gives the structure its perfect cylindrical form, to help diffuse what might have otherwise been an obtuse exterior rotundity, and to help give the structure an aesthetic curb appeal, a gargantuan Greek Corinthian style portico and lightweight white travertine marble, coupled with a layer of bronze roofing, rendered this into a-one-of-a-kind Roman treasure. Think Jefferson Memorial (Washington, DC) sans the rotunda’s exterior columns and open interior space.

Even though this was the crowning achievement of Roman architecture, it had two drawbacks: The oculus was the only source of light, and the interior space was circumscribed by a much needed thick wall to help carry the weight of the dome, thus constricting the interior space and limiting the number of visitors/worshippers to, at best, several hundred.

In 1627 Pope Urban VIII ordered the removal of the beautiful bronze dome covering, all 3000 plus pounds of bronze, and commissioned the great Baroque painter, sculptor, and architect Bernini to build the gargantuan Baldacchino altar in St. Peter’s Basilica. This centrally located altar (with a giant bronze canopy suspended on four 95 ft. high spiraling fluted columns) is perhaps one of the best examples of interior space vertically magnified in what is no doubt an ingenious attempt to draw the viewers’ eyes to the majestic dome, a kind of celestial receding plane – call it an absorption and invitation to heavenly realms.


When Rome expanded its reach to the Eastern Mediterranean and established Constantinople (named after the Emperor Constantine) as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, paganism yielded to Christian dogma. Better known as the Byzantine Empire, pagan art gave way to Christian iconography, an art form that utilized mosaics to create a rich catalogue of Christian themes derived (primarily) from the New Testament.

414 years after Hadrian commissioned Apollodorus of Damascus to build the Pantheon, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian commissioned Anthemius of Trales and Isodore of Melitus to solve the aforementioned limitation on interior space and paucity of light. In other words, Justinian’s desire to provide an interior space to accommodate more worshippers, inspired Anthemius and Isodore to design a domed structure that would puncture and expand the adjacent surrounding walls – thus creating an interior space that would accommodate 3,000 plus worshippers. What these two mathematicians devised would forever change dome-structured architectural designs.

Four massive square columns were erected. Better known as pendentives, these columns, anchored as four corners of a square, pierced the vertical space and became the support for four massive arches that traversed the open space so as to form a midair base onto which a 108 ft. diameter dome was suspended. With 40 equally spaced ribs to flesh out and support the dome’s interior/exterior ceiling/roof coverings, at its highest point, the dome extends to 180 ft. Not only did these brilliant mathematicians add an exponential interior space, but they also solved the problem of light; a circular interlacing necklace of 40 equally-spaced elegant windows provided telescoping light to illuminate the entire church. As a child in my native Jerusalem, Palestine, I was told that in the Orthodox tradition, filtered natural light is associated with spiritual enlightenment. A Byzantine chronicler described the suspended dome as “a golden chain from Heaven. [sic.]” Another called it a “firmament which rests on air.” And yet another stated that “Light comes from the Good and light is the visual image of God.”

Mosaic art, the favored Byzantine medium of choice par excellence, was selected for its durability and its luminosity. A rich assortment of interior columns utilizing the favored ornate Byzantine compound capitals and a plethora of exquisite marble (in every hue and marbleized striated colors) imported from across the Mediterranean basin helped make the Hagia Sophia the greatest achievement of Byzantine art.

So proud was Justinian of his accomplishment, a chronicler attributes the following quotation to him: “Solomon, I have outdone thee.” The 6th century Byzantine historian Procopius remarked that the Hagia Sophia “seems not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven.” And a thousand years later the Ottoman historian Tursun Beg was likewise awestruck: “What a dome that vies in rank with the nine spheres of heaven.”

Suffice it to say that so great was this Byzantine stunning feat, a truly rare architectural magnum opus, that the Ottomans, under the brilliance of their own genius, architect Mimar Sinan’s virtuosity, would build numerous mosques of varying sizes – all of which utilized the pendentive feature. And as a bookend to the Hagia Sophia, in 1615 the Ottoman Sultan Ahmad commissioned Mehmet Agha to build the Blue Mosque whose interior has one inch thick Iznik, cobalt blue, glazed tiles, including Arabic script of copious Koranic verses in spectacular calligraphic lettering.

The Blue Mosque’s exquisite and graceful elegance of line, harmoniously symmetrical contours, wide open and inviting interior space, ornate chandeliers and stained glass windows whose luminosity transcends anything I’ve witnessed, is by far the most aesthetically pleasing work of visual opulence on which I’ve feasted my eyes. The Blue Mosque is a celebratory dazzling symphony unlike any other.


When, in 1454, the Byzantine Empire gasped its last breath in the aftermath of the Ottoman conquest, most of the priceless Hagia Sophia mosaics were plastered over, and four Minarets were added. What was the pride of Eastern Orthodox Christendom would, in 1454, become a Muslim place of worship and a symbol of Islam’s answer to 250 years of heinously bloody and barbarous Crusader assaults perpetrated by a so-called Christian West against the Near Eastern Arab, Muslim, and Christian populations of Palestine and Syria.

And to this day the Arab and Islamic worlds are still recovering from both, the Crusades, as well as the late 19th and early 20th, century colonization, including, the early 21st century genocide and destructive wars in Palestine, Syria, Iraq, and Libya – to exploit the region’s natural resources with, of course, the tacit approval of the regional tribal warlords, thuggish sheiks, corrupt potentates, and brutal dictators.

Arabs and Muslim subjugated masses, when will you wake up to claim your place in modern history? When will you rise up for a long-overdue true Arab Spring? When will a Spring of enlightenment and democratic principles emerge?


The Hagia Sophia’s suspension of a dome on pendentives would also serve as a prototype for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to name but two. The Agra, India-based mausoleum built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and dedicated to the memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died while giving birth to their 14th child, tells its own story.

And what a wonderful love story this aesthetically exquisite visual marvel is? It is a testament to art’s subordination to the strongest of human emotions in this sacred union called conjugal love – even after the birth of the 14th child. This permanent visual edifice of the chiseling of the ivory-white marble, set in the center of adjoining symmetrical pools, is an exemplum of Love to be emulated and held up and celebrated as a love story for the ages.


On 10, 11, and 14 July, 2020 Aljazeera English’s reports on the reaction to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Ergodan’s decision to reconvert the Hagaia Sophia Museum to a mosque are among the very best news reports (the reader’s patience is implored):

UNESCO said its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status, saying it was “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog nor notification beforehand.” … The 1,500-year-old monument is revered by Christians and Muslims alike. [Anadolu] 200701162019199

Reporting from Istanbul, Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu said the decree [Ergodan’s] was not a surprise as Erdogan had previously stated that he would like to see Hagia Sophia open for Muslim prayers on July 15, the anniversary of a failed coup attempt. … “There are dozens of people in front of Hagia Sophia museum. As soon as the court decision was announced … they have been here chanting, they have been celebrating since then, and we spoke to them, they are very impatient to be able to pray inside Hagia Sophia,” Koseoglu said. … The organisation [sic.] which brought the court case, the latest in a 16-year legal battle, said the Hagia Sophia was the property of the Ottoman leader who captured the city in 1453 and turned the already 900-year-old Byzantine church into a mosque.

Erdogan threw his weight behind the campaign to convert the building before local elections last year. … In response to the ruling, the Russian Orthodox Church on Friday said the decision could lead to even greater divisions.

The United States, Russia and Greece, along with UNESCO, had expressed concerns ahead of the ruling.

“UNESCO calls on the Turkish authorities to open a dialog [sic.] without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session,” the United Nation’s cultural body said in a statement.

Erdogan earlier this month rejected international criticism as an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty.

Pope Francis has said he was hurt by Turkey’s decision to make Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum a mosque, but Ankara said the decision will maintain a relationship of equality and mutual respect in the country.

It was the Vatican’s first reaction to Turkey’s decision to transform the Byzantine-era monument back into a mosque, a move that has drawn criticism from around the world.

“I think of Hagia Sophia and I am very saddened,” Pope Francis said towards the end of his midday sermon in Saint Peter’s Square.

The World Council of Churches has called on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reverse his decision and Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, called it disappointing.

On Saturday, Erdogan rejected international condemnation over the decision to change the status of Istanbul’s landmark Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque.

“Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries … attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights,” Erdogan said at a ceremony he attended via video-conference on Saturday.

Bishop Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external church relations, described it as “a blow to global Christianity”.

The World Council of Churches, which represents 350 Christian churches, said it had written to Erdogan expressing their “grief and dismay”.

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Ieronymos, on Sunday denounced what he described as the “instrumentalisation [sic.] of religion to partisan or geopolitical ends”.

“The outrage and the arrogance doesn’t just concern the Orthodox Church and Christianity but all of civilised [sic.} humanity … independently of religion,” he added.

Erdogan said Hagia Sophia – known as Ayasofya in Turkey would remain open to Muslims, Christians and foreigners.

“The Hagia Sophia’s doors will remain open to visitors from all around the world,” the president’s press aide Fahrettin Altun said on Saturday. “People of all religious denominations are welcome and encouraged to visit it – just as they have been able to visit other mosques, including the Blue Mosque.”

UNESCO said its World Heritage Committee would review Hagia Sophia’s status, and Turkey’s decision raised questions about the effect on its universal value as a site of importance transcending borders and generations.


On 25 June, 2020 Middle East Eye reported that Israel’s Supreme Court awarded three properties belonging to Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to a fanatic Jewish Taliban settler group. Ateret Cohanim fraudulently claimed that the Greek Orthodox Church’s 99-year lease qualifies it to purchase the property. The zealot Ateret Cohanim works with and is funded by international Zionist organizations, including Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump’s like-minded moneybags Daddy/buddy, to the tune of a $300 campaign contribution. If this “ain’t” quid pro quo, then what is it? Other shadow international groups are funding Jewish settler groups to ethnically cleanse Jerusalem of its Christian and Palestinian citizens. All of this is in line with Israel’s laws to create a Jewish State – meaning an ethnically pure Jews Only State, a Juden Uber Alles of post Holocaust barbarity.

All observers agree that the properties’ strategic location in the heart of occupied Jerusalem’s Christian and Moslem quarters and in close proximity to Jaffa Gate, including two landmark Palestinian hotels (Hotel Petra and Imperial Hotel), is intended to drive a dagger in both, the sham called a peace process, and in driving the final nails into the coffin of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem at its capital. The Orthodox Patriarch stated the following: “We believe that the court erred in its decision and intend to launch an appeal at the Supreme Court.”

Earlier this year Israel Defense Forces (the most moral army in the world) desecrated and bulldozed a 1400 year old Moslem cemetery so as to convert it into a public park with a café and nightclub. Middle East Monitor has also reported that In 2004, the Israeli government and the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre announced plans for the so-called Museum of Tolerance.

The museum is planned to be a multimedia centre for children and adults with theatre and education facilities. The Centre announced the project as a 21st century project dealing with ‘contemporary issues crucial to Israel’s future — intolerance, anti-Semitism, terrorism, Jewish unity and mutual respect and human dignity for all.’

Not only was the cemetery razed, but the remains of thousands of deceased, dating back to the 7th century, were summarily moved as an impediment to “Israeli and Jewish tolerance.” And finally, the Greek Orthodox cemetery located on Mt. Zion, the place where my father was buried in 1947, has been vandalized; tombstones were toppled in what is an obvious malevolent act of depraved rage. Have you no shame Holocaust survivors? Can’t you leave the dead alone? And why don’t you take out your rage on European Christians, those who perfected genocide into an art form?

The Dormition Abbey, adjacent to the cemetery where my father is buried was defaced with Hebrew graffiti; this is one of several Christian and Moslem churches and mosques that have been vandalized. A mosque in the old city of Jaffa was this year bulldozed and replaced with a parking lot.

And for those who want to remind us of Nazi brutality, the list of Jewish brutality is long and painful to Palestine and her children.

Condemnation for Turkey’s decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was swift and universal. Yet for each of the aforementioned affronts by Holocaust survivors there’s not been a single condemnation. If anything, Israeli hasbara and yes, let’s admit it, bought Democrat and Republican political muscle in America and abroad, absolves Israel of all its crimes against a dispossessed people.

For 76 years the world has been shamed, and rightfully so, about the Holocaust. Yet that same world has abetted and condoned the brutalities inflicted on the other victims of the Holocaust, the destitute children of Palestine.

On 4 April, 2020 I received the following email from a dear Palestinian Christian friend and acclaimed author living in the pincers of Israeli occupation in our beloved Jerusalem, Palestine. The email reads:

Dear Raouf,

Is not the Corona pandemic enough???

While the United Nations Secretary General is calling on all countries to silence the guns and focus on collectively saving humanity from this vicious pandemic that is ravaging societies around the globe, Israel finds it very timely to increase its oppression of the Palestinians under occupation.

A few days ago Israeli soldiers raided Ramallah creating havoc in the middle of the night. A week ago they continued demolishing homes in the suburbs of Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank. And on the second of April, the police raided the house of Fadi Hidmi, the Palestinian minister in charge of the affairs of East Jerusalem, blasting the gate to his garden and breaking into his house, as well as confiscating the money he had at home.

Not only does Israel seize the opportunity of this world crisis to further harass the Palestinians, they always choose the night hours for their raids. Why I wonder? It seems to me that thieves are the only people that need to be protected by the dark hours of the night to do their illegal actions. The Police in Jerusalem know very well that the Palestinians in East Jerusalem are practically under curfew and they have complied by staying at home. So they could have easily picked up Mr. Hidmi during the day time without scaring the family and causing extra stress to the community that is already being deprived of its basic rights. The only charge against Mr. Hidmi is that he is trying, with his colleagues, to alleviate the suffering of so many people who have lost their daily bread due to the current crisis which has not spared either Palestinians or Israelis. And that is why the police has also been harassing all the young volunteers of the Old City of Jerusalem and confiscating the aid in kind that they are trying to deliver to needy families.

Will the Corona Pandemic be a good enough lesson for all of the world leaders and citizens? Actually, it is in time of crisis and the way one reacts to fellow world citizens that one’s true character is revealed.

Unfortunately, when the Sacred encounters the Profane in the land of the three Abrahamic faiths, the Mark of Cain becomes “writ large” on the hills, valleys, and plains of Palestine, a coveted and fought-over land where might makes right, where, instead of genuine faith, religiosity is turned into a battering ram, where faith is bartered in the international markets of nasty arms dealers, and where Evangelicals and their coreligionist-Zionist scavengers prey on false gods in the service of the one God: the God of Odious Greed, and where the innocent always suffer.

To my fellow Palestinian countrymen in occupied Palestine I say this: You are always in my mind, always in my heart, and my pen will always be the best weapon I can use to tell your story of Sumood (resilience) and grace under fire.

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.