ABSTRACT

The Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, was the great church of Constantinople. Built in a remarkably short period of time, 532-537, by the Emperor Justinian, it was the centre of Christian life for much of the Byzantine empire. With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 it became the mosque of the Aya Sophia, and as such the chief place of worship of the Sultan, who would later assume the additional title of Caliph ul-Islam in 1517, following Selim I’s conquest of Egypt. In its new guise it was slowly almost lost to Western memory. It was, however, never entirely forgotten, and as European powers began to intrude into the Eastern Mediterranean world, particularly from the early nineteenth century, a fascination grew with what had once been the greatest church in Christendom. At the same time the Eastern Question, as the problem of the Ottoman Empire came to be called, was concerned with the consequences of the slow decline of a state now commonly referred to as ‘the sick man of Europe’. Turkish rule, and the Turks themselves, were viewed with great negativity, and there was a great deal of anti-Turkish agitation from 1870s through the First World War. In Britain there was great concern about the treatment of the Ottoman’s Christian subjects and St. Sophia became a subject of fascination. Britain was emerging as an Eastern Mediterranean power and for a few years, at the end of the First World War, it occupied Constantinople. The desire to save St. Sophia, both materially and spiritually, grew with the expansion of British power into the region throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and would involve early preservationists and devout Christians, who were often one and the same.