Conversions of Hagia Sophia
It is a very cumbersome task, but I keep on doing it for years — carrying my old books with me wherever I move cities or countries. I mean books that matter to me for different reasons, like some of my university handbooks, history books, second-hand books, books that might have no value or use to anyone else but me. But although I rarely read them now, there comes a time when an old volume that has been with me for years and now gathering dust on the shelf becomes suddenly useful.
I am referring to the book “Foreign Travellers to Greece -333AD-1700/ Public and Private life, popular culture, faith, economic life, from travel logs) by Kyriakos Simopoulos published in Athens in 1970. In the past, I made good use of its information and its huge reference list when I was looking for original texts by old travel writers to Greek lands, including the western parts of the Ottoman Empire.
What made me pull that 800-page volume from my shelf now, maybe is obvious: Hagia Sophia, the subject of a heated political discussion these days.
This incredible structure which, unlike any ancient buildings, gives you the feeling that is still very much alive, is not just an issue of East Orthodox Greeks and Muslims. There was a harrowing middle period in its long history when it suffered perhaps its most significant wounds: The period of Crusades and the Latin rule. Between being an Orthodox place of worship and a Muslim mosque, Hagia Sophia was converted for almost 60 years to a Roman Catholic Cathedral to serve the Latin emperors who ruled the City from 1204 to 1261, before being converted again as an Eastern Orthodox Church until 1453 when it was converted to a mosque with the conquest of the city by the Ottomans.
My old book is a treasure trove of information about those old times. For example, how was the City just before the looting and plundering by the armies of the Fourth Crusade? A certain Odon de Deuil, I read, member of the French Court visited the city in 1119 and describes it just before it was sacked by the Latins.
“This rich and famous city resembles the sail of a ship. On one corner there is the Grand Palace with a chapel “full of holy relics” and on the other the palace of Vlachernae, with a beautiful view of the sea, the countryside and the city. Next to the land walls there are vegetable gardens. But the city is dirty, full of filth. In some areas there is total darkness,” he notes. But he admits, “It is a city that surpasses any measure.”
Rabbi Benjamin from Saragossa of Spain arrived at the city in 1159 and in his travel log he notes: “With the exception of Bagdad there is no such city in the world that can be compared to this City. Here one sees the famous church of Hagia Sophia where the patriarch resides. The treasures of Hagia Sophia are incalculable. Riches and presents come from various islands, castles and regions. There is no such temple in the world. One can see, columns of gold and silver, grand chandeliers, candle holders and countless rich murals.”
Several foreign travelers from Europe but also from Russia and the Arab world arrived in Constantinople just before its destruction of 1204, during the Fourth Crusade. An illustrious religious ceremony in Hagia Sophia is described by the Archbishop of Novgorod Antony, where “everything shines of gold, silver and precious stones.” That was in 1200.
Four years later, the fate of the city, its people and its riches turned to the worse. A wave of pilgrims, soldiers of fortune and an unruly crowd from the west, flooded the place. “Even the toughest soldier felt his skin shivering when he first came across this city,” describes Geoffroy of Villehardouin in an eyewitness account of the Conquest of Constantinople in 1204.
Constantinople was ransacked by the Latin army in April 1204. It was looted, plundered and succumbed to the new Latin rulers. Baldwin I was crowned on 16 May in a ransacked and desecrated, Hagia Sophia at a ceremony which closely followed Byzantine practices. The sources tell us that he wore a very rich jewel bought by Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Hagia Sophia continued as a Latin Cathedral
before it was reconverted to an Eastern Orthodox Church and then to a mosque.
My book goes on with more exciting travelers’ accounts about Hagia Sophia as Latin Church and as an Ottoman mosque. As I said before, it is a building which is still breathing with mystical life that can be experienced by any visitor of whatever faith. In spite of the attempts to destroy it, it has managed to maintain its core and soul until today.