Monday, June 29, 2009

Restore Agia Sophia

Agia Sophia, the Church of God's Wisdom as it was known, was closely identified with the life of Byzantium and its renowned capital Constantinople, today's Istanbul. Agia Sophia has been for many centuries the symbol of Christianity and of divine power throughout the Byzantine Empire and the Christian world.

Built on a hill near Bosporus, in the area of Constantinople that also housed the Great Palace, the Hippodrome and the Augusteum, the "Great Church" for centuries served as the center of Ecclesiastical life for Christendom.

In times of crises, such as sieges, starvation and epidemics, all Christians, Catholic and Orthodox, sought salvation and Holy Grace from the Basilica of Agia Sophia.

Agia Sophia as we know it today was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian and it accommodated 23,000 people. Its splendor, according to Byzantine writers of the time was without equal. Nothing like it was built before or after. The "Great Church" was dedicated to Jesus Christ the "Wisdom of God", and celebrated its feast day on Christmas (December 25).

Agia Sophia was consecrated in a magnificent ceremony on December 27, 537, A.D., by Emperor Justinian and Patriarch Minas. When the Emperor entered the Church through the royal gates he was so stunned by the grandeur of his work that he turned to heaven and exclaimed "Glory to God that I have been judged worthy of such work. Oh, Solomon I have surpassed thee!" referring to the magnificent Temple King Solomon had built in Jerusalem. Succeeding Emperors maintained the vast complex of Agia Sophia and enriched it with priceless gifts.

The "Great Church" remained as the mother church of Christianity and the symbol of the Orthodox Christian faith until the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The Fall of Constantinople to the Turkish forces led by Sultan Mohammed II on May 29, 1453, interrupted the functioning of Agia Sophia as a Christian Church. By the time Mohammed the "Conqueror" entered Agia Sophia to "pray" a few days after the conquest, the Holy Christian Basilica had already been converted into a mosque.

The conversion of Agia Sophia to a mosque meant that both the interior and the exterior of the "Great Church" underwent significant alterations. The cross above the dome was replaced with a crescent and the first minaret was erected. The magnificent icon of Jesus Christ the Pantocrator (The Almighty) within the dome was gilded over, the altar and icons were removed and the irreplaceable majestic mosaics on the walls of the church were plastered over.

In the 553 years of captivity, many Ottoman Sultans showed particular interest in embellishing and maintaining Agia Sophia as a Mosque. Changes were carried out under Sultan Salim II when a second minaret was built. Two more minarets were constructed during the reign of Sultan Murat III.

With the end of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the "modern" Turkish State, the use of Agia Sophia as a mosque came to an end.

In May 1934, the government of Turkey converted Agia Sophia into a museum. Today, the mother Church of Christianity, the Great Church of God's Holy Wisdom, functions as a pseudo museum with the title "Ayasofya Muzesi" hosting local and international trade shows, musical concerts, exhibitions, tourist photo ops and other commercial activities.

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