Hagia Sophia Trabzon is a formerly Greek Orthodox church that was converted into a mosque in 1584. It is located in Trabzon, northeastern Turkey. It was converted into a museum in 1964 and back into a mosque in 2013. The building dates back to the thirteenth century, when Trabzon was the capital of the Empire of Trebizond. It is located near the seashore and two miles west of the medieval town’s limits. It is one of a few dozen Byzantine sites extant in the area and has been described as being “regarded as one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture”
Hagia Sophia Trabzon was built in Trebizond during the reign of Manuel I between 1238 and 1263. The oldest graffiti carved in the apses of the church contain the dates 1291 and 1293. After Mehmed II conquered the city in 1461, the church was possibly converted into a mosque and its frescos covered in whitewash. Other scholars suggest it was not converted until 1584, being spared the initial transformation because it stood several kilometers outside the city walls. The adjacent monastery continued to be used by monks as late as 1701, when Tournefort found them still in residence. It is likely that the monks gradually abandoned a building that failed to protect them from harassment and predation, and the Turks assumed its use without needing to expel them.
According to local tradition, at the turn of the 19th-century the site was used as a cholera hospital. During World War I the city was occupied by the Russian military and for the first time the church could be examined by archaeologists, including Fyodor Uspensky, and some preliminary cleaning of the wall paintings began. In the 1940s it was reported to be locked and used as a store, but by the 1950s it was again in use as a mosque. In 1964, when it was turned into a museum. Between 1958 and 1964 the surviving frescoes were uncovered and the church consolidated with the help of experts from the University of Edinburgh and the General Directorate of Foundations; one expert involved in the work estimated no more than one-sixth of the original decorations had survived. All that did survive, however, are thought to be original works done just after its construction, and are considered part of the Byzantine ‘Palaiologic Renaissance’.
The Hagia Sophia church is an important example of late Byzantine architecture, being characterised by a high central dome and four large column arches supporting the weight of the dome and ceiling. Below the dome is an Opus sectile pavement of multicolored stones. The church was built with a cross-in-square plan, but with an exterior form that takes the shape of a cross thanks to prominent north and south porches. The structure is 22 metres long, 11.6 metres wide and 12.7 metres tall. The late 13th-century frescos, revealed during the University of Edinburgh restoration, illustrate New Testament themes. External stone figurative reliefs and other ornamenting is in keeping with local traditions found in Armenia and Georgia. 24 metres to the west of the church is a tall bell tower, 40 metres high. It was built in 1427 and houses a small chapel on its second floor. The internal walls of the bell tower are covered in frescoes. It was also used as an observatory by local astronomers.
The church figures prominently and has key significance for the lead character’s spiritual development in Rose Macaulay’s novel The Towers of Trebizond. “It took me some time to make out the Greek inscription, which was about saving me from my sins, and I hesitated to say this prayer, as I really did not want to be saved from my sins, not for the time being, it would make things too difficult and too sad.”