Grandma changes her religion … again!

Yesterday, to absolutely no one’s surprise, Turkey’s High Court confirmed the desire of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to revert Hagia Sophia from its current official status as a museum back to its previous function as a mosque. It would appear that Erdoğan is losing no time, and plans to open it for public prayer by next week.

Having visited Hagia Sophia many times between 2000 and 2013, I have very mixed feelings about this. Exploring this church turned mosque turned museum was one of the central experiences of the Early Christian World pilgrimages I led almost every year from 2006 to 2013.

I regard the Hagia Sophia as the “Grandmother” of all churches. Built by Emperor Justinian between 532 and 537 – less time than it takes to get a permit today! – it was a daring and unique architectural masterpiece. There had previously never been another building like it, but many subsequent churches (and mosques) have been modeled on it. The name means “Holy Wisdom.”

Here’s a video reconstruction of what it may have looked like in the early Byzantine times. The walls and ceilings, depicted as gold in color, undoubtedly had brilliant mosaics and frescoes.

A timeline might put yesterday’s event in perspective:

  • 360-404 (44 years) The first Hagia Sophia basilica built by Emperor Constantius I. It was burned down in a riot protesting the exile of St. John Chrysostom by Empress Eudoxia.
  • 415-532 (117 years) Emperor Theodosius II built another wood-roofed basilica on the same site, which was burned down (along with half the city!) in the Nika Riots, a revolt that started as a sports riot and ended with Justinian slaughtering more than 20,000 protesters.
  • 537-1453 (916 years) Hagia Sophia was the Cathedral Church of Constantinople, overshadowing St. Peter’s in Rome, which was falling into disrepair during much of that time. At about the half-way point, Hagia Sophia was the site of the dramatic act of mutual excommunication between the Pope (Bishop of Rome) and the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, resulting in the Great Schism between Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Catholic) Christianity, which still remains unhealed.
  • 1453-1935 (482 years) The first act of Sultan Mehmed II on the day he conquered Constantinople was to declare Hagia Sophia a Mosque. Interestingly, he did not change the name of either Hagia Sophia or Constantinople. (Istanbul is actually derived from a Greek expression meaning “to the city.”)
  • 1935-2020 (85 years) Museum, established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as part of his effect to apply Western secular culture to every aspect of Turkish life, including Islam. In 1985, the Hagia Sophia Museum was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

In the early 2000s, I believed that Erdoğan was leading Turkey in the right direction as a secular state, envisioned by Atatürk, recovering its religious heritage, rebuilding its economy, and taking its position as a respected member of the European Union and the worldwide family of nations. I had hoped along with many others (Stephen Kinzer, for example), that Turkey could become a model for a healthy integration of Islam and secularity, as was articulated by Fethullah Gülen and begun to be lived in practice in the Hizmet (“Service” in Turkish) movement inspired by him. His words and teachings are, I believe, still an inspiration pointing to the right path for faithful Muslims.

On the one hand, as a museum, Hagia Sophia stands as a monument to Turkey dual Christian and Islamic heritage. That heritage is threatened by the current Islamist direction of Erdoğan’s government. Mustafa Akyol, a journalist who is trying to contribute to a more positive self-understanding of Islam, argues that Erdoğan’s move will be a blow to religious pluralism and tolerance.

On the other hand, perhaps there can be an opening here for dialogue and a positive Christian response. I think we Christians need to be like our Christ, and respond to what may be perceived as hostile acts not by hostility and retaliation but with love and a steadfast invitation to dialogue in action.

On the positive side, a museum piece, which by definition is a remnant of the past – no matter what its lessons maybe, a museum piece is an ossified historical curiosity – is no being restored as a place of prayer and worship. A Catholic historian points out that “converting” places of worship, often as a sign of national or at least cultural conquest, has been done since earliest times. Another commentator points out that restoring Hagia Sophia as a place of prayer is even truer to its Christian origins, pointing out that Muslims and Christians do worship the same God, even though our concepts of God are different.

As a mosque, one might hope that the Turkish government will take better care of it than they did as a museum. Hopefully the Christian art will be preserved in some way, as has been done in other “conversions” (Trabzon and Iznik, for example. Incidentally, both of those churches/mosques are also named Hagia Sophia.)

Can this be an opening for dialogue and mutual religious accommodation? Some years ago (2014), Mustafa Akyol advocated considering opening Hagia Sophia for both Muslim and Christian worship. There is precedence for this, and I think the matter should be studied and proposed by a unified voice on the Christian side. (The fact that Christians remain so divided among ourselves is a real stumbling block to a unified practical Christian approach to Islam.) The Catholic Church has a glaring example of the current refusal of such reciprocity in the Cathedral of Córboda, which has a long history of both conflict and collaboration. There is room for initiative on both sides, and little of substance to be gained by hardening of sectarian and nationalist positions.

Yesterday I received an email from the music group, Cappella Romana, who recently released an album entitled The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, which aims to reconstruct the sound of Byzantine chant as it would have been heard in the Great Church, based on measurements and physical properties of the building. It’s a fabulous recording. We cannot move back into the past, but we can discover new ways to explore, share, and appreciate our diverse and rich heritage.

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