Not Hagia Sophia again!

Not Hagia Sophia again!

For the last 10 years, I have been writing about this subject: Hagia Sophia. But not about its architectural mastery and stunning beauty – more about its turbulent recent history involving Greece and Turkey, although theoretically Hagia Sophia has been officially declared and used as a museum since the 1930s.

The misfortune of Hagia Sophia has been that throughout its history, it was seen as the biggest trophy that any powerful leader could win. 

Its founder, the emperor Justinian, decided to re-establish his power by embarking on a massive public project program after surviving the destructive revolt of “Nika.” And at the top of his priorities was to rebuild an older Hagia Sofia that was destroyed by the rebellious crows of the city. For him, to complete such a monumental construction of great ingenuity and magnificence, in the mid-sixth century, meant that “he had defeated King Solomon” and established himself as the most powerful Christian leader in the world. 

Almost 1,000 years later, another powerful leader, Mehmed II, he went straight to the Great Church of the holy Wisdom after he entered a badly defeated Constantinople, “dismounted at the door of the church and bent down to take a handful of earth, which he then sprinkled over his turban as an act of humility before God.” For him, like with Justinian, this magnificent structure became his political and religious center of power, his greatest trophy in the war of Islam over Christianity. 

From then onwards, Hagia Sophia, now Ayasofya, with its four added minarets, became the imperial mosque of this Islamic emperor, the sultan, surpassing him as well as several others that followed for almost five centuries until the fall of the Ottomans.

Of course, for major religious buildings to acquire double or triple identities because of their longevity and cultural importance is not unusual. The Great Mosque-Cathedral of our Lady of the Assumption of Cordoba is one of the most striking examples of an Islamic/Christian place of worship. 

And although Hagia Sophia is the prime example of converting the center of Christianity to the center of Islamic Ottoman faith, little is known about the fate of an older center of political and religious power: the Parthenon. The power symbol of the Athenian Empire and its most powerful leader, Pericles, was also turned into a Christian church at roughly the same time as Hagia Sophia was founded. Then it was converted into a mosque about six years after Hagia Sofia, until it was bombed by the Venetians in the 17th century, plundered by the British in the 19th century under the Ottomans, and eventually left in peace as a protected monument of World Heritage within the boundaries of the modern Greek state. 

Nobody has ever thought of putting forward the idea that the Parthenon should return to its previous state as a mosque or a church!

I have written many times that over their long and turbulent history, Turks and Greeks have been at odds on many issues. But when it comes to culture, the over-confidence of the Greeks as being the direct heirs of an ancient civilization which ended with the last breath of Byzantium, has often clashed with the perceptions of the Turks as successors of a great medieval empire, the Ottomans, who bequeathed them a land that hosted most of the world’s major civilizations. 

But while until recently, the debate over the Hagia Sophia was mainly on the proprietorial issue of the monument, discussions and reactions on both sides have recently turned to the usage of the monument as a place of worship. 

A Muslim prayer service inside the Hagia Sophia in May 2014 raised certain reactions outside Turkey, mainly in Greece, among those who objected to the modern use of a declared Monument of World Heritage. But this year’s decision by the Turkish government and religious authorities to perform a daily televised reading of the Quran in the Hagia Sophia throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan caused a fierce reaction in Greece. A statement from the Greek Foreign Ministry called the daily ceremony at Hagia Sophia, “regression” that “contradicts the values of modern democratic and secular societies.” It received an even stronger Turkish reaction accusing Greece, among others, for “mistaking anti-Islamism with contemporaneity.” 

I think we all understand how these bilateral issues can spiral out of control especially when they become attached to domestic political agendas. Hopefully the end of this Ramadan will also bring down bilateral tension. And let us care more for the protection, restoration and tranquility of this World Monument instead of foisting some modern use upon it.