A Message from Father Nick 18
By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul – still important, after all this time.
The news that Recep Erdogan, president of Turkey, was planning to “reconvert” a building in Istanbul caused widespread and predictable controversy. After all, this was not just any building. Hagia Sophia as it is universally known has been both a church and a mosque and for almost a hundred years has had the status of a museum. It is a site of enormous historical importance, but it is also so much more.
Hagia Sophia means “Holy Wisdom”, a term used of Christ himself. From its construction in 537 AD until the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 it served as the spiritual centre of eastern Orthodoxy. Kenneth Clark (Lord Clark of “Civilization” fame) described it as being with Chartres cathedral, “one of the two most beautiful covered spaces in the world”.
Its distant roots lie in the story of Rome under Constantine. A man for making big decisions, Constantine looked at the geopolitical situation of the old city and calculated its strategic responsibilities. He decided to move the seat of government to Byzantium in the eastern part of his empire.
“New Rome”, or “Constantinople”, as it was named, was consecrated on 11th May, 330 AD, the first custom-built Christian city in the world. It would soon become famous for its exceptional beauty and refinement. At that time the Church was a single undivided entity, with a western, Latin tradition focused on Rome and an eastern, Greek tradition based in Constantine’s new city on the Bosphorus. Strange as it may seem, the West was regarded as the more backward sphere of influence.
As Old Rome entered the so-called “Dark Ages”, New Rome grew in splendour. By the 6th century, emperor Justinian I (who with his wife Theodora formed one of the great imperial double-acts of history) determined to build the most glorious church in the world. Revealingly, when Hagia Sophia was completed, he exclaimed in wonder, “I have outdone you, O Solomon!” Justinian’s inspiration lay in the original temple of Jerusalem – the first great element of its symbolism.
Hagia Sophia’s beauty became proverbial. Its enormous dome; its gold mosaics; its pillars and hanging-lamps; its green marble floor, like a meadow filled with flowers – all instilled a sense of awe. Sailors far out at sea looked eagerly for the first reflection of sunlight from its gleaming outer surface. It was on the main altar of this church that a bull of excommunication was laid by a papal legate in 1054 to mark the formal separation of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy – a tragic failure on both sides. And it was here that acts of desecration were carried out by a western Crusader army in 1204 as they turned on the city in an orgy of pillage and destruction – a historic outrage which remains unforgotten in the East.
For two hundred and fifty years after that, the old eastern empire dwindled under Ottoman attack until only the city remained. And all the time Hagia Sophia maintained its central identity as a symbol of Christian hope. It was here that people crowded on the morning of 29th May, 1453 to pray for God’s help as the final attack overwhelmed their defenders. The account of that defeat is one of the most poignant passages in Christian history.
Mehmet II, the Turkish conqueror, on entering Hagia Sophia was as overcome as everybody else by its size and beauty. To an extent he curtailed the slaughter of Christians and ordered that it be turned into a mosque. And from then until the beginning of the twentieth century Hagia Sophia did serve as a mosque. It had been invested with another kind of symbolism.
Its next phase of life began in 1935. A combination of international politics, secularization of Turkish life under Kemal Ataturk, and the great cost of maintaining such an ancient building led to its decommissioning as a mosque. The old church was designated a museum, and that is how many of us will have come to know it, its mosaics largely covered and its golden beauty dimmed, but still with a capacity to inspire tremendous awe. Whatever its official status, it will continue to remind us of the bigger story of the world – and it will always encourage us all to do better.