Nehru’s Word: The Story of Hagia Sophia

“Those stones and walls had seen a lot of Juma namaz and Sunday services. A daily exhibition is now their lot. The world keeps changing, but they stay. On their worn-out faces is an apparent smirk..."

Pt Jawaharlal Nehru
Pt Jawaharlal Nehru

Mridula Mukherjee

Eighty-four years ago, Jawaharlal Nehru, in an effort to warn the people against the dangers inherent in allowing religion into the political domain, wrote a fascinating article, while serving one of his numerous jail terms in Almora. We bring you the second and final part this week.
He recounts the 1,400year-old history of the Santa or Hagia Sophia Church/Mosque in Istanbul, which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had recently converted into a museum. Ironically, the present ruler of Turkey, Erdogan, has reconverted it into a mosque to buttress his pro-Islamic credentials.


“In this city of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, massive buildings were built by the orders of the emperors and very soon it developed into a very big city…In the sixth century a magnificent cathedral was built in this style. It was known as Sankta Sophia or Santa Sophia…later on the Christian religion split into two parts….

The Cathedral of Santa Sophia was the centre of the Greek Church and so it remained for nine hundred years…. At last, when the Eastern Roman Empire had lasted for more than a thousand years, Santa Sophia also being about 900 years old, a new invasion took place which ended that old regime. In the fifteenth century the Osmanli Turks conquered Constantinople and the greatest cathedral there now became the chief mosque. Santa Sophia was named Apa Suphea.

In this new form it lasted for hundreds of years. That splendid mosque in a way became a landmark gazed at from long distances with aspirations. In the nineteenth century the Turkish Empire was weakening and Russia was gaining ground. Russia was a very big country but a closed one and all over her empire there was not one warm-water port. She therefore cast a covetous eye on Constantinople.

More than this was the spiritual and cultural attraction. The czars of Russia used to consider themselves successors to the Eastern Roman emperors and wanted to bring their old capital under their domination. Both were of the same religion, the Orthodox Greek Church, of which the centre was the famous Santa Sophia. For long it had been a mosque. How could that be tolerated? The Greek Cross instead of the Islamic mark, Hilal or the crescent, should be on its dome.

Gradually the Russia of the czars started expanding towards Constantinople…. England and France put obstacles, a war ensued and Russia stopped her advance for a while…. At last the Great War of 1914 started and in that, England, France, Russia and Italy made secret treaties. Before the world were placed the high ideals of freedom and independence of small countries, but behind the curtain, like vultures waiting for the corpse, the partition of the world started.


Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

Before that corpse could be reached the Russia of the czars itself came to an end; a revolution took place there which changed the government as well as the social structure. To expose the cunning of the major imperialistic powers of Europe, the Bolsheviks annulled all the secret treaties and declared that they were against imperialism and did not wish to annex any other country.

The victorious powers of the West did not like this clear stand and sane attitude of the Bolsheviks…They, especially the English, took over Constantinople…The Sultan bowed, the Caliph accepted European sovereignty; but a handful of Turks refused to accept it. One of them was Mustafa Kemal who preferred to revolt rather than to serve.

In the meantime, there came up a new successor and claimant to Constantinople. These were the Greeks. After the War, Greece was awarded vast lands and started dreaming of her old Eastern Roman Empire…

But there was the great difficulty, the difficulty of Mustafa Kemal Pasha. He faced the Greek onslaught and ruthlessly drove out the Greek army from his country. He turned out the Sultan-Caliph who had backed the enemies of the country. He abolished the institutions of the Sultanate and Caliphate. He raised his prostrate and lifeless country, ravaged by a multitude of problems and enemies, and gave it fresh vigour.

His greatest reforms were, however, in the religious and social fields. He pulled the women out of the veil and gave them a leading position in society. He crushed bigotry in religion never to raise its head again. He propagated modern education for all. He put an end to customs and rituals of a thousand years.

The name of Constantinople was also changed. It became Istanbul.


And Apa Suphea— what was its fate? Looking on at the ups and downs of life, that old building of fourteen hundred years stands still in Istanbul. For nine hundred years, it witnessed Greek services and smelt all the incense used in Greek worship. Then for four hundred and eighty years, it heard the azan in Arabic and lines of devotees for namaz stood on its floor stones.

And now? One day, in this year 1935, only a few months back, by the orders of Gazi Mustafa Kemal…it has been decided that instead of being a mosque, Suphea be converted into a museum— especially that of the Byzantine period— an era of Christians before the arrival of the Turks…Thus Suphea, now, in a way, went back again to the Christian era.

Great excavations are going on there these days, the mounds of earth are being removed. Work is going on under the supervision of experts of Byzantine art who have been called from America and Germany.

While going round the museum, think of the peculiar history of this world and let your mind roam thousands of years back and onwards.

Strange are the pictures, the spectacles, the tortures and terrors that one comes across. Ask those walls to relate to you their story, and narrate their experiences to you. Maybe the study of yesterday and today will enable you to remove the curtain and peep into the future.

But those stones and walls are silent. They had seen a lot of Juma namaz and Sunday services. A daily exhibition is now their lot. The world keeps changing, but they stay. On their worn-out faces is an apparent smirk and a mellow voice as if whispering: how ignorant and foolish is this human creature who does not learn by his thousands of years of experience and repeats the same follies.”

(Selected and edited by Mridula Mukherjee, former Professor of History at JNU and former Director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

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