Retaining the valuable

The Turkish Islamic tradition is one of assimilating the new, while retaining the old.

The Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th century in all of 5 years. It reigned as the largest cathedral in the world for nearly a century thereafter. It was built in the Byzantine style, with a huge dome in the center. It had mosaics of Jesus, his disciples, Archangel Gabriel and so on. When the Ottoman empire took over in the 15th century, they had no use for a church – they needed a mosque instead. But they did not raze the structure down and build afresh. They covered the mosaic with plaster (Islam prohibits all imagery within a prayer hall), added minarets, built a mihrab (prayer niche) and used the building as a mosque. They did not even rename the building – Hagia Sophia, which translates to Holy Wisdom, suits Islam just as well. Today, Turkish mosques everywhere are designed based on the Byzantine style of domed architecture, with its roots in orthodox Christianity.


The beauty of historical cities come in different shades. They can be homogeneous like Paris, which was destroyed in a fire and rebuilt in uniform shades of white and grey. Or they can be like Istanbul: an amalgamation of the old and the new, churches and mosques, Christianity and Islam, and Europe and Asia. The Turkish sultans celebrated this heterogeneity with pragmatism and open-mindedness. And by doing so, they have handed down to us this architectural wonder of 6th century AD that took a mere 5 years to build.

In an age where the new, the shiny and the young are increasingly given precedence,the Hagia Sophia reminds us to exercise the requisite discretion to retain the old that is valuable.

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