Saturday, December 07, 2013


"Solomon, I have surpassed you.” Emperor Justinian.

One of my chief sources of pride derives from the fact that my family’s origins lie in Tralles, modern day Aydin, home of the great Modern Greek writer, Dido Sotiriou and of course, Anthemius, one of the architects of possibly one of the most important architectural masterpieces ever devised by humankind: the vast domed church of Saint Sophia, in Constantinople.

Saint Sophia, the church dedicated to God’s holy wisdom is but one of the many surviving Byzantine churches that exist in modern day Istanbul, yet by its sheer size, innovation of design and apparent weightlessness, it has captured the imagination of the entire world. It was also a chief selling point for Byzantine civilization and religion, especially with the pagan Russians, who in the quest to adopt a state religion, had sent embassies to the Judaic Khazars, the Islamic Caliph and to the Byzantines. It was said that when they entered the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, they were so caught up in the chant, the incense, the icons, the liturgy, and the sense of the holy presence of God, that they were overcome.  In their report to the Prince they said they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth and they had never seen such beauty.  They could not describe it except to say, "there God dwells among men..."

For 800 years, the Great Church was so interwoven within the fabric of Byzantine politics and religion that it became a focus both for the development of Orthodox ritual, a bulwark against imperial absolutism and/or a willing participant in government. As such it shared the successes and vicissitudes of the rest of the empire, being stripped of its iconic decoration during the period of the iconoclasts, and of course, during the 1204 sack of Constantinople, was subject to the same abuses as the rest of the population. This is how chronicler Nicetas Choniates described the fate of the church: “Nor can the violation of the Great Church be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendour. .. Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch's seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently.”

More such abuse and suffering would be visited upon the Great Church during the 1453 sack of the city by the Ottomans. Throughout the siege the Liturgy was performed and the church formed a refuge for many of those who were unable to contribute to the city’s defence. Trapped in the church, congregants and refugees became booty to be divided amongst the invaders. The building was desecrated and looted, and occupants enslaved or slaughtered; a few of the elderly and infirm were killed, and the remainder chained. Priests continued to perform Christian rites until stopped by the invaders. When the Sultan and his cohort entered the church he insisted it should be at once transformed into a mosque. One of the mullahs then climbed the pulpit and recited the Islamic statement of faith. From that point on, until 1935, when Kemal Ataturk decided that that Saint Sophia should be opened to the public as a museum, the church was off-limits to Christians.

Ever since that time, Saint Sophia has loomed large over Greek conceptions of identity. Religiously speaking, there is no doctrine of the Orthodox church that affords a special place to this church, for God can be worshipped in any church. Rather it is the symbolism of the church, as being identified with both the greatness and suffering of a people, that has caused it to occupy a special place within the hearts of the Greek people to the present day. It is the focus of much irredentist and crackpot theory but further than that, a potent reminder of a time of brilliance long gone. It is the waking dream whose last moments linger long after the corpus of the dream is long forgotten, leaving but a taste of its significance. It is an offering of hope and eternity.

This is the true reason why Greeks and other lovers of Saint Sophia are deeply disturbed at the recent suggestions by Turkish officials that just as Saint Sophia in Trapezounta has recently been converted into a mosque after years of being a museum, so too the Great Church itself may be reconverted into a mosque, as will the Byzantine monastery of Stoudion, which lies in ruins and will be renamed İmrahor İlyas Bey Mosque.. The argument that this is a gross and unnecessary insult to the Orthodox faith however, does not address the fact that for four hundred and eighty two years, the Great Church has been utilised as a mosque. Further, as a mosque, it holds a special place in the hearts of Turkish muslims, because it acts as a symbol of the Turkish conquest of Byzantium and consequently of the foundation of their empire and state and further, it formed the blueprint for the development of a particular Turkish style of Islamic architecture. Again, symbols and connotations appear to be more important that religious considerations.

Kemal Ataturk, who understood this, was therefore right in ordering that the Great Church be converted into a museum. In this way, the church could act as a neutral vessel for the symbolism and connotations of both historical and religious traditions, without impinging upon any nation’s sensitivities. It could also act as a beacon of much needed healing at a time when a war had caused untold misery for people living on both sides of the Aegean. Such is the power of the edifice and the wisdom of Ataturk’s decision, that subsequent years of provocation, conflict and abuse have until now, not compromised the Great Church’s capacity to act as a mother for the hopes aspirations and beliefs of all.

As Greek Orthodox Christians, we would like to be able to pray in the Great Church. We would also love to pray in the churches of St Sergius and Bacchus, Panayia Pammakaristos, Saint Irene, the Monastery of Chora and a host of other churches in Constantinople that have been converted to mosques, concert halls or museums. Though we cannot, we can do the next best thing, which is to visit them, marvelling at the ingenuity of our ancestors, excelling in a multi-ethnic society, all the while reflecting on the fickleness of fate and the vanity of all that we do.

For Turkish Muslims also want to pray in these buildings. On 23 May, thousands gathered in prayer to protest the law that bars religious services at the church. Worshippers shouted, “Break the chains, let Hagia Sophia Mosque open.”  According to Salih Turhan, a spokesman, “As the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, seeking the re-opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is our legitimate right.”

Determining the legitimacy of one claim over another, in favour of muslim worship sets a dangerous precedent, one that threatens to inflame conflict and give unnecessary religious and nationalistic dimensions to an issue that at its heart , is about respect for people’s heritage and their cultural symbols. A mature society is one that acknowledges the commonality of such symbols , celebrates them and makes them open to all. An immature society on the hand, seeks to exclude, to deny, to narrow its focus and turn in on itself. Both Greeks and Turks have been prone to such tendencies in the past, and this has been to both people’s detriment. One marvels that after years of attempts at rapprochement, genuine or not, that such a retrograde and clumsy step as the conversion of Saint Sophia is actually seriously being reconsidered. Such reactionary approaches make one despair of any possibility of peace and understanding in the broader region

Whatever transpires and in whatever form, Saint Sophia, will continue to abide in the hearts of all who love her, divorced from any petty and grubby political considerations. In this, the last word goes to the historian and over of the Great Church Procopius:  “For it soars to a height to match the sky, and as if surging up from amongst the other buildings it stands on high and looks down upon the remainder of the city, adorning it, because it is a part of it, but glorying in its own beauty."

FIRST PUBLISHED IN NKEE ON Saturday, 7 December 2013