Vatican City, 29 November 2014 (VIS) – This morning, Pope Francis travelled by air from Ankara to Istanbul. The only city in the world divided across two continents, Asia and Europe, it is situated on the banks of the Bosphorus, the river that connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean. Upon arrival he was welcomed by the Governor of Istanbul and by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios I, and then transferred by car to the Blue Mosque, or the Mosque of the Sultan Ahmed.
Built between 1609 and 1917 by Ahmed I on what had been the site of the great palace of Constantinople, the mosque became the most important place of worship of the Ottoman Empire. The name “Blue Mosque” derives from the 21,043 turquoise ceramic tiles adorning the walls and the dome. The ceramics used to cover the walls, columns and arches originated from Iznik in ancient Nicaea, and range in colour from deep blue to green. Benedict XVI visited the mosque during his trip to Turkey in 2006. Pope Francis was received by the Grand Mufti and remained a moment in silent prayer.
The Holy Father then proceeded to the Museum of Hagia Sophia, the basilica dedicated to Divine Wisdom, first built in the year 360 by the emperor Constantine on a site previously occupied by pagan temples. It was later destroyed by two fires, one in 404 and another in 532, and the emperor Justinian undertook its reconstruction in order to make it into “the most sumptuous work since the time of Creation”, ordering all the provinces of the empire to provide their best marble and most prized materials. Hagia Sophia was inaugurated for the third time in 537. During the conquest of Constantinople in 1204, it was despoiled of its richest adornments by Latin Christians and in 1453, when it fell into the hands of the Ottomans, Mehmet II ordered it to be transformed into the first imperial mosque of Istanbul. During the subsequent three centuries, this Muslim place of worship received splendid gifts from various sultans, until the eighteenth century, when the mosaics were covered with plaster. In 1847 the Sultan Abdulmegid engaged the Swiss architects Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati to uncover the mosaics and restore the building. In 1935, at the behest of Ataturk, Hagia Sophia became a museum, which it remains to this day. Popes Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI all visited it during their trips to Turkey.
Pope Francis was received at the Imperial Door by the director of the Museum, who accompanied him on a guided tour lasting around half an hour. The Holy Father signed the guest book of Hagia Sophia, first in Greek with the phrase Αγία Σοφία του Θεού (Holy Wisdom of God) and then in Latin: “Quam dilecta tabernacula tua Domine (Psalm 38).
After leaving Hagia Sophia through the Beautiful Gate, Francis proceeded to the papal representation where he was awaited by members of the Catholic communities (Latin, Armenian, Syrian and Chaldean) of Istanbul, and where he was greeted by the president of the Episcopal Conference of Turkey, Archbishop Ruggero Franceschini, O.F.M. Cap.