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Transcript of Episode 11: Suspended on a Golden Chain

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If you ever took world history or listened to They Might Be Giants, you probably know that Istanbul was Constantinople, now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople, so if you’ve got a date in Constantinople they’ll be waiting in Istanbul. But did you know that a similar thing happened to Istanbul-slash-Constantinople’s most famous building? Hagia Sophia was first a Christian church, then became a Muslim mosque, and then finally became a secular museum. Now, though, it’s very possible that it might become a mosque once again, thanks to ideological shifts that have taken place in Turkey over the past few years. That’s a lot of shifting of names and purposes and affiliations, but the Hagia Sophia has been around in something approximating its current form since the sixth century, so some changes are to be expected. In this episode, I’d like to take you, dear listeners, through as many points of change in Hagia Sophia’s history as I can, and in particular consider how those political, social, and religious changes interact with the design and function of the building itself. How was Hagia Sophia used in its early years as the imperial church of the Byzantine Empire? How did it change hundreds of years later as the imperial mosque of the Ottoman Turks? And what exactly was so compelling about this building that kept it around despite both metaphorical and literal upheaval? There will be tons of changes to track, but don’t worry about taking notes, unless you want to. I’m a big fan of taking notes.

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This is the first architectural work I’ve discussed on this podcast, and it presents some unique problems when it comes to description, especially when so many people have described it before. For this initial visual description, I thought I’d quote the fairly detailed one given by Thomas F. Madden in his book Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World. Madden admits that “words fail when describing the glory of Justinian’s Hagia Sophia,” but for the purposes of getting a general idea of the building in your mind’s eye, I think his description works quite well.[1] So here’s Madden’s description of the church of Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, commissioned by Emperor Justinian I in the year 527 and completed in 532 by architects and engineers Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus:

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“At its core, Hagia Sophia is a Greek cross roughly 250 by 225 feet. In the center of the cross is a square 100 by 100 feet, surrounded by arched colonnades that 180 feet up support the largest domed cupola that had ever been built (100 feet in diameter). This created a vast area of unsupported space, more than any other structure in history. Indeed, it was not surpassed until the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome more than ten centuries later. All this was further supported by semidomes on the east and west sides and massive buttresses to the north and south. Materials from across the empire were employed in the construction. Marbles of every color and from numerous locales were used to decorate the floor and walls. Beautiful mosaics were installed, although most of the ones that survive today were executed well after Justinian. The extraordinary monolithic columns were also imported. Some of these were taken from the ruins of the Temple of Diana/Artemis in Ephesus. Hundreds of windows brought into the stone interior bright sunlight, which danced and reflected on the gold-covered dome and the multihued marbles. The dome was ringed by windows, giving one the impression that, as Procopius remarked, it was suspended from heaven by a golden chain.”[2]

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Hagia Sophia is generally acknowledged as an architectural masterpiece, even included in a book of The Buildings That Revolutionized Architecture in 2015.[3] But the version of Hagia Sophia that exists now is actually a re-building of a church of the same name that had been completed in the year 360.[4] The re-building was a project of Emperor Justinian I, a former commoner who took the throne of the Roman Empire in 527 and, after quashing a revolt in 532, the same year the new Hagia Sophia was completed, was ultimately responsible for reshaping the entire city of Constantinople.[5]  The entire Hagia Sophia project executed by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus could be characterized as an expression of Justinian’s imperial power. As the ruler of what remained of the great Roman Empire, which had been plagued by division, betrayal, and greed over the previous couple of centuries, Justinian had a vested interest in projecting power, wealth, and command over territory. The Hagia Sophia project allowed the expression of those things through design and material choices. The marbles of many colors, from many places, emphasized the wide range of territory over which Justinian had control. The columns taken from the Temple of Diana in Ephesus further emphasized this, and also established a kind of continuity between Justinian’s reign, the earlier and more powerful Roman Empire, and the ancient Greeks, who had already become a symbol of artistic, intellectual, and political achievement in Europe. The enormous dome displayed Anthemius and Isidore’s engineering prowess, making Justinian look good in the process, and the numerous windows allowed sunlight to enter and create ethereal effects in the marble-covered space, while also allowing lamplight to stream out at night and awe onlookers from afar.

Hagia Sophia was the official church of the city of Constantinople, the official seat of the Roman Empire in its later years, also known as the Byzantine Empire because Constantinople had previously been called Byzantion. (See, the name changes are starting already.) Because of this, it pops up in almost every account of events in the city, whether as the site where a new emperor was crowned, or a new claimant to the throne was crowned, or a new leader of the Eastern arm of the Christian Church was determined, or simply as a gathering-place for the often disgruntled Byzantine citizenry. Madden’s book in particular is filled with mentions of the Hagia Sophia or the square in front of it, the Augusteion, as sites where both change and continuity are displayed in the history of the city. Imperial processions concluded at Hagia Sophia, as did riots, too. There’s a reason that “byzantine” is also an adjective meaning “devious” or “intricately involved,” and it’s not because transfers of power in Constantinople were smooth and transparent.[6] Throughout it all, Hagia Sophia was the site to which everyone turned for confirmation or rejection of major changes. The physical landscape of Constantinople was also unsteady, partly because it kept getting burnt down by all those riotous mobs, and partly because the eastern Mediterranean is quite earthquake-prone, with a particularly strong quake forcing the Hagia Sophia’s dome to collapse in 558.[7] It was rebuilt with even more windows, making the “golden chain” effect even more majestic. But with the relative frequency of both man-made and natural disasters in Constantinople, it was only a matter of time before Hagia Sophia became a target of intentional violence.

The advent of the Crusades in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries brought increased pressure and violence to Constantinople, despite the fact that the Crusades were, in theory, about retaking Jerusalem and the Holy Land from Muslim rulers so that they were under the Catholic Church’s control . By this point, the Western branch of the church, headquartered in Rome, had split from the eastern branch, headquartered in Constantinople. There were many attempts to reunite them, some of which occurred as a result of Crusader activity. The difficulty of this reunion wasn’t so much theological as it was political and almost magical: there was a belief all over Eurasia, it seemed, that he who possessed Constantinople would be able to conquer the world. This is sort of practically based, as Constantinople sits directly between Europe and Asia and is a pivotal port, but there were also some mystical and legendary elements to this belief. The Crusades being a direct conflict between the Christian West and the Muslim East, combined with seemingly never-ending conflicts about succession among the Byzantine emperors, brought even further attention to Constantinople, and eventually brought Crusaders there, too. In the late 1100s and early 1200s future Byzantine emperor Alexius IV successfully convinced Crusaders to redirect their path toward Constantinople and overthrow his uncle Alexius III.[8] Hagia Sophia suffered as a result: when Alexius IV was installed on the throne he was forced to melt down “sacred vessels and altar adornments” to pay the Crusaders, making enemies of the Byzantine citizens in the process.[9] The Byzantines did what they seemed to do best (riot) and both Byzantines and Crusaders committed quite a lot of arson in the days following, resulting in a fire that spread and burned the Hagia Sophia’s atrium.[10] The Byzantine mob congregated in Hagia Sophia and occupied it for three days, demanding a new emperor be crowned. There was a great deal of back-and-forth between claimants to the throne, people forcibly installed by the Byzantines, and the Crusaders, but Constantinople ultimately fell to the Western Crusaders in 1204, initiating what Madden calls the Latin Occupation of the city.[11]

The Crusaders sacked the city for three days after they took it, and Hagia Sophia and other Byzantine churches were among their targets. Madden describes the destruction in the following way:

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“…The Europeans stripped the altars of all precious furnishings, smashed icons for the sake of their silver or gems, and defiled the consecrated Eucharist and Precious Blood…Radiant Hagia Sophia was stripped of everything of value. The priceless main altar was hacked to pieces and divided among the looters. So much wealth was found in the great church that mules were brought in to carry it all away. Unable to keep their footing on the slick marble floor, some of the beasts tumbled to the ground and were split open by the sharp objects they carried, defiling the church with their excrement and blood.”[12]

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Holy relics were also looted, often by priests and bishops, and many manuscripts were lost along the way, as many of the Crusaders were illiterate and presumably didn’t care very much about written works .[13] Ultimately, the Crusaders split control of the city amongst the Venetians, the Flemish, and the French, and Hagia Sophia became a Roman Catholic church. The Doge of Venice, who had participated in the Crusade, was buried in the upper gallery of Hagia Sophia upon his death, and when earthquakes shook the city once again in the 1230s, it was the French who added new buttresses to prop up Hagia Sophia’s walls, and may have added a new mosaic during the same period. The Westerners would retain control of the city for only around two centuries before the rising tide of Ottoman power overtook them. In 1453, Ottoman sultan Mehmed II launched an all out assault against the city, and many Byzantine citizens sheltered inside Hagia Sophia, away from his cannon blasts.[14] When the Ottomans finally breached the city walls, they broke down the doors of Hagia Sophia and slaughtered or enslaved those huddling within, following up by looting the church for its valuables, just as the Crusaders had in the 13th century.

Mehmed II’s formal claiming of the city involved Hagia Sophia, too—he recited the Muslim prayer, “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet,” in Hagia Sophia, continuing the tradition of regime change taking place at that holy site. After the allowed 3-day looting period, Mehmed focused on rebuilding the city, which included converting its churches, Hagia Sophia especially, into mosques. Hagia Sophia’s crosses and images were destroyed or covered over, its altar was removed, carpets were put in, a single minaret was built, and a mihrab, or niche marking the direction of Mecca, was also installed.[15] Hagia Sophia officially became Ayasofya, the imperial mosque of the Ottomans. It remained so until the 1930s, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey, began enacting a program of secularization, which included converting Ayasofya into the Hagia Sophia Museum. In the interim, during the 19th century, Western European and American scholars began to take another look at Byzantine history, which had been characterized largely negatively in the centuries prior.[16] Enthusiasm for the Byzantine period, and for Hagia Sophia specifically, increased, with Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid commissioning two brothers, Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati, to restore the building in the 1840s.[17] In the process of restoration, the Fossatis uncovered several Byzantine-era mosaics, which the Sultan ultimately decided to cover again out of concern regarding Islam’s prohibition against idolatry. The Fossatis were able to distribute imagery of the restored building via an album of lithographs depicting different aspects of Hagia Sophia, published in 1852. Art historian Robert S. Nelson characterizes the Fossatis’ restoration and publication as having a largely Western focus; the album, he states, quote, “helps us to appreciate the monument’s fundamental alterity for European audiences,” and “the restoration of the building itself, especially the neo-byzantine aspects, was hardly traditional and belongs more to the European historicism of Western Europe into which the building was soon to be enfolded.”[18] End quote. The Fossatis’ efforts seem to have further revved up Western European interest in the Byzantine world, and Nelson tracks the reception of Hagia Sophia by Westerners in the nineteenth century, remarking in particular how Hagia Sophia was used as a political emblem both by Sultan Abdulmecid and by Western governments such as Prussia. Thus, Hagia Sophia became not just a site of politics and religion, but a symbol of them, too.

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The fascination that Hagia Sophia has held for so many people for so long is rooted in its material richness, its sheer scale, and in its phenomenology—that is, the effect the building has, whether literal or metaphorical, on those who experience it. The description at the beginning of this episode from Thomas F. Madden gives a good sense of that material richness, as do the many instances in which Hagia Sophia was stripped of ornament for financial gain or as an act of wartime destruction. Marbles from numerous different places, pillars taken from other Mediterranean sites, jewels and precious metals adorning the altar, mosaics high up on the walls; Hagia Sophia was replete with wealth and undeniably beautiful to pretty much anyone who set eyes upon it, especially in its Byzantine heyday. Procopius of Caesarea, who attended the dedication of Hagia Sophia under Justinian I, wrote an ekphrasis, or descriptive text, about Hagia Sophia that still serves as the touchstone for many scholars discussing how the cathedral looked in its early form:

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“Who could tell the beauty of the columns and marbles with which the Church is adorned? One would think that one had come upon a meadow of flowers in bloom. Who would not admire the purple tints of some and the green of others, the glowing red and glittering white, and those, too, which nature, like a painter, has marked with the strongest contrasts of color? Whoever enters there to worship perceives at once that it is not by any human strength or skill, but by the favor of God that this work has been perfected. His mind rises sublime to commune with God, feeling that He cannot be far off, but must especially love to dwell in this place which He has chosen.”[19]

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Churches were not supposed to be decked out with expensive materials for vanity’s sake, but for the glorification of God, and discussions of Hagia Sophia, whether primary sources like Procopius or later scholarly discussions, always bring focus to the religious dimension of Hagia Sophia. Procopius’s ekphrasis doesn’t just describe a building, it remarks upon how the materials used in that building are evidence of God’s creative power, and of what humans accomplish when they receive divine inspiration and favor. A great deal of discussions of Hagia Sophia focus on its Byzantine life as a church—discussions of how it was received as a mosque under the Ottomans are more difficult to find, but even with the altar removed, the images covered, and the floor carpeted, the sheer scale of the building and the effects of light streaming in through its windows must have brought to mind the power of Allah. Certainly, the building’s mythology was rewritten when it was taken over by the Ottomans. Art historian Robert Ousterhout remarks that a version of the new Ottoman narrative of Hagia Sophia reported that, quote, “when the half-dome of the apse collapsed on the night of the Prophet Mohammed’s birth, it could be repaired only with a mortar composed of sand from Mecca, water from the well of Zemzem, and the Prophet’s saliva.”[20] End quote. This narrative helped cement the newly dedicated Ayasofya as an integral and significant part of the Ottoman Empire, giving the building a legitimacy that helped lead to the construction of a number of other mosques in the style of Ayasofya.

Hagia Sophia was thus a visual wonder and a model for other architectural projects, but it also helped to shape how other senses were used in religious experiences, particularly the auditory. The Christian liturgy especially is a multi sensory affair: there is the sight of the ritual, the smell of incense, the taste of wine and bread in the holy sacrament of Communion, the feeling of physically moving through the rituals of the liturgy, and, of course, the sound of priests reciting scripture and choirs performing liturgical music. Art historian and acoustician Bissera V. Pentcheva, acknowledging that many studies have been conducted in regards to the visual effects of Hagia Sophia on visitors, conducted acoustic studies of the space in order to better understand how the space affects the sounds that would have been created during the Christian liturgy in the Byzantine period. Here’s an excerpt from her 2011 article “Hagia Sophia and Multisensory Aesthetics,” published in the medieval studies journal Gesta, which I highly recommend you read in full. In it, Pentcheva explains an experiment she undertook with the data about Hagia Sophia’s acoustics:

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“…[Jonathan Abel, a consulting professor of music] and I collaborated with Cappella Romana, a choir specializing in early music, and recorded their performance of Romanos Melodos’ First Kontakion on the Nativity, the Prokeimenon of St. Basil, and Psalm 140. In this way we produced new anechoic recordings, which we convolved with the Impulse Response of Hagia Sophia. During the recording session, the voice of each singer was captured on a separate track, dry (with minimal room acoustics imprinted on the recorded sound). Each chorister received live feedback via earphones, auralizing his or her performance in Hagia Sophia. This real-time experience enabled the singers to hear themselves sing in the Great Church during the recording session, as opposed to an effect produced during postproduction. This new approach helped the singers interact live with the immense interior…and align their pitch with the maximum resonance of the building. As a result, they dramatically slowed their tempo…When the…performance is auralized in Hagia Sophia (reproducing the acoustics for the empty interior), it is enhanced and enriched, with the acoustic energy lingering and harmonized with the new notes produced in the space. The spectrogram shows how the reverberant acoustics of Hagia Sophia bring about a smoothing effect and flesh out the fullness of sound.”[21]

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Now there’s a lot of technical language in there, but the important thing to take away from it is that when vocalists heard themselves singing live with the reverberation that would be produced by their voices bouncing off the surfaces in Hagia Sophia, it had a noticeable impact on the tempo at which they sang and the final quality of their singing. Pentcheva notes the reverberation time of a sound produced in Hagia Sophia is in the range of ten to eleven seconds—“extremely long,” according to her, and that length of reverberation results in a unique effect, especially when it comes to music.[22] Notes reverberating for ten seconds thus harmonize with notes sung during those ten seconds. Pentcheva connects this extended reverberation with visual wave forms in the marbles in the church, and with wave and reverberation imagery in an ekphrasis of the building, ultimately arguing that these many expressions of reverberation are related to concepts in early Christian theology. What’s most important for us, however, is the effect this multifaceted idea of reverberation has on the visitor to Hagia Sophia, whether they are a worshipper or not. Try to imagine you’re in a space where every sound you make continues to echo for ten seconds, a space that you can never view fully because the architecture prevents a full panoramic view. How might it feel to be in that space alone? How might it feel to be in that space with dozens, even hundreds of other people? A few descriptors may come to mind: disorienting, perhaps, or surreal, or perhaps a sense of enormity and endlessness. Now, I’ve never been to Hagia Sophia, and many of you listening now may never have been, or may never get the chance to go, but even without physically going there, Pentcheva’s description of the sound of the space, not just what it looks like, gives us an even better sense of the qualities of the building. That’s the thing about architecture—it’s not just visual. It’s by its very nature a very physical art form, a very practical one, one that affects every sense you have, not just sight.[23]

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Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum, attracting millions of visitors every year.[24] It’s not primarily a space of worship, but some people do worship there, both Christian and Muslim, and the Muslim call to prayer is broadcast over a modern sound system multiple times per day.[25] An increasingly vocal group of Turks have been calling for Hagia Sophia to become a mosque once again—some are part of conservative Islamist groups, but some just seem to be passionate about the Muslim heritage of the building. In 2017, the L.A. Times wrote an article on the movement to return Hagia Sophia to a mosque, and interviewed a couple of supporters of the movement. One leader, Emrullah Celik said, quote, “We want to enter with a prayer rug, not with a ticket,” end quote.[26] Salih Aykuz, the head of a youth branch of an Islamist party, said, quote, “It’s not like the stones of Hagia Sophia are holy, there is nothing inside it that makes it special, but God told us it is important…We were taught by our prophet Muhammad that Constantinople was an important place, and this was the most important place in the city, so it is dear to our hearts.”[27] End quote. This last quote is particularly interesting because Aykuz notes that there is nothing materially “special” or “holy” about the building itself—it seems that at some point, the mythology surrounding Hagia Sophia, including the legend that it was partially repaired with some of the prophet Muhammad’s saliva, faded away. Now it is the principle of Hagia Sophia as mosque that seems to be important. The L.A. Times article also notes a, quote, “rise in popularity in Turkey of Ottoman-themed television shows and the promotion of the nation’s imperial heritage,” end quote. You might have seen a show on Netflix called Magnificent Century, which aired from 2011 to 2014 in Turkey and focused on the life and rule of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Medieval content and visualizations of a time of greater national harmony and prosperity always seem to pop up when a nationalist spirit is on the rise. In England during the nineteenth century there was a fascination with medieval chivalry and the story of King Arthur around the very same time that the more modern English monarchy was expanding the British Empire as far as they possibly could. White nationalists in Western Europe and America in more recent decades have turned to medieval imagery and ideas in order to justify their ideologies, from the strict gender roles present in stories of chivalry to the notion that medieval societies were quote-unquote “ethnically pure.” The Turkish situation is somewhat different, but there is a historically proven connection between reverence for a time in the past one believes to be more unified and prosperous and with the rise of more conservative, and unfortunately often damaging, ideologies. An article in the Irish Times from January 2018 tells how, quote, “members of a well-known, right-wing ultranationalist group recited the Islamic call to prayer inside the Hagia Sophia. They were arrested, but such incidents signify support for a change of status beyond hardline Islamic groups.”[28] End quote. Later, in March 2018, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan recited the first verse of the Quran inside Hagia Sophia, effectively displaying state support for a change that many in the international community, including Greece and the United States, take issue with.[29] The problem is not with allowing Muslim worship at Hagia Sophia, that’s been happening for a while now, but rather whether converting Hagia Sophia back into a mosque would make it inaccessible to other groups who might find it of historical or religious value, including Christians, especially since it still retains some Christian iconography.

The matter was decided, at least for the moment, in September 2018, when Turkey’s highest court rejected a request from a religious group to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque once again.[30] It was rejected largely over a technicality with the filing of the request, so this issue is most likely not over and done with completely, but for the moment, at least, Hagia Sophia remains a museum. It’s sort of poetic that all these centuries later, the church-then-mosque-then-museum is still at the heart of major conflicts over religion and politics. There may be less concern regarding the material value of the building and more regarding the symbolic, but Hagia Sophia is still the site where shifts in power and religion in the city are focused, just as it was when Byzantine emperors were changing every five minutes and when Mehmed II turned Christian Constantinople into Muslim Istanbul.

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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All! You can find a transcript of this podcast with links to images and citations at You can follow us on Twitter at arthistory4all, with the number 4. You can subscribe to the podcast feed on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or RadioPublic, and go ahead and rate and review us! Good ratings and word of mouth help us help more people engage with art history. If you really, REALLY like the podcast, or just want to give me a Christmas present, please feel free to leave a tip on Ko-Fi, at

This podcast was produced and narrated by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description or at the end of the transcript. Our next episode releases at the end of January, but until then, remember to look closely in 2019: you never know what you might see.

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[1] Madden, Istanbul: City of Majesty at the Crossroads of the World (New York: Viking, 2016): 113.

[2] Madden, 114.

[3] Florian Heine and Isabel Kuhl, The Buildings That Revolutionized Architecture (Munich: Prestel, 2015): 27.

[4] Madden, 77.

[5] Madden, 104-116.

[6] “Byzantine.” Accessed December 14, 2018.

[7] Madden, 115.

[8] Madden, 177-196.

[9] Madden, 190.

[10] Madden, 190-192.

[11] Madden, 196-200.

[12] Madden, 206.

[13] Madden, 207.

[14] Madden, 240-251.

[15] Madden, 255-56.

[16] Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004): xviii.

[17] Nelson, 30-31.

[18] Nelson, 31-33.

[19] Procopius, quoted in Madden, 114-115.

[20] Robert Ousterhout, “The East, the West, and the Appropriation of the Past in Early Ottoman Architecture,” Gesta 43, no. 2 (2004): 170.

[21] Bissera V. Pentcheva, “Hagia Sophia and Multisensory Aesthetics,” Gesta 50, no. 2 (2011): 102-103.

[22] Petncheva, 102.

[23] For more on this, see Paul Crowther, “The Body of Architecture,” in Phenomenology of the Visual Arts (even the frame) (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009): 173-206.

[24] “Statistics,” Hagia Sophia Museum. Accessed December 18, 2018.

[25] Umar Farooq, “Voices grow louder in Turkey to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum back to mosque,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2017.

[26] Farooq, “Voices”.

[27] Farooq, “Voices”.

[28] Stephen Starr, “Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia is at the centre of a battle for Turkey’s soul,” The Irish Times, January 2, 2018.

[29] “Turkish President Recites Muslim Prayer at the Hagia Sophia,” U.S. News & World Report, March 31, 2018.

[30] “Turkish court rejects bid to convert Hagia Sophia to mosque,” AP News, September 13, 2018.

Additional music credits:

“Between Worlds (Instrumental)” by Aussens@iter via Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

“Rite of Passage” by Kevin MacLeod via Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

“Photo theme: Window like” by Antony Raijekov via Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic License.

“Virtutes Vocis” Kevin MacLeod ( Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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