Photo of the week: Viking graffiti at the Hagia Sophia


This week’s Photo of the Week isn’t very pretty, considering that it comes from the Hagia Sophia. The Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian cathedral in 537, under the Byzantine Empire when Istanbul was Constantinople. In the 15th Century, the Ottomans conquered Constantinople and changed its name to Istanbul. They were completely blown away by the Hagia Sophia because of its commanding architecture and outstanding artistic features. Its dome is gigantic and the stonework and layout was like nothing before it. Despite the fact that it was built for a different religion, they kept it around because they couldn’t imagine the city without it. However, since the Ottomans were Muslims, they converted it into a mosque.

This conversion required a few things, including:

  • Covering up the mosaics. The Hagia Sophia had mosaics that represented Jesus, Mary, disciples, and other popular figures in Christian art. Although these people appear in the Qur’an also, Islam forbids any art that represents humans. Like I mentioned in an earlier post, even artistic representations of the prophet Mohammed are forbidden.
  • The addition of a mihrab. When Muslims pray, they must face Mecca, a city in Saudia Arabia that hosts the holiest mosque in Islam. All other mosques have a decorative area against or carved into a wall in the mosque, which faces Mecca. This is called a mihrab. Needless to say, the cathedral lacked a mihrab.
  • The addition of minarets. Minarets are the pointy towers around mosques. They act as an elevated place from which imams (Islamic priests) can broadcast the call to prayer. The Hagia Sophia now has some of the tallest minarets in the world.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey decided the Hagia Sophia should no longer be a cathedral or a mosque, but rather a museum. This is the way travelers from around the world see it nowadays.

I encourage you to read more about the Hagia Sophia. Here’s a nice, succinct history of it.

Anyway, while it was still under the Byzantine Empire, the Vikings sacked Constantinople. In the process, some punk Viking named Halvdan scratched his name into the marble of the Hagia Sophia. Normally I’d find something like this shameful, but it fits in nicely with the dynamic history of the Hagia Sophia, which has taken on a little character from every major group of people that’s stumbled upon it.


2 thoughts on “Photo of the week: Viking graffiti at the Hagia Sophia

  1. I remember the Hagia Sophia from studying Constantinople last year. I remember I had to draw the cathedral to represent religion, but never heard about how it was converted from Christian to Islam. I may have forgotten though, since we were mixing up Christianity, Judaism, and Islam at the time. I assumed it was always a big, great mosque. Oh wait, I do remember that the minarets weren’t added on the the building until the Ottomans took over the state, because the picture in the textbook included them even when the Byzantines were still there, so we were told to take notice of that. I like how some Viking just carved his name into the building so long ago – I wonder how many other marks have been made on the building.

  2. I also learned about the similarities between the Christians, Jews and Muslims. I also remember the Hagia Sophia from playing a game called Age of Empires 2 (very educational on history), and I was a crusader leader, so… I had to destroy it.

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