In November 2012, my wife and I visited Hagia Sophia, the great former Eastern Orthodox basilica. For me, it was an emotional pilgrimage. I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 2007, and Hagia Sophia is to us what St. Peter’s is to Roman Catholics, and to a far lesser degree I suppose, what Mecca is to Muslims.
But Hagia Sophia, completed in 537 and in continuous use ever since, isn’t just important to Eastern Christians. The cathedral has tremendous general historical significance for Christians and Muslims alike. It was instrumental in sparking the Christianization of the Slavic East. In 987, observers sent by Prince (St.) Vladimir the Great of Kiev to observe Eastern Christian religious practice reported ecstatically to him of attending a Great Liturgy at Hagia Sophia: “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth nor such beauty,” a report that helped persuade the prince to be baptized, resulting in mass conversions and the eventual emergence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Several decades later, Hagia Sophia was also the site of the first overtly antagonistic act of the Great Schism. The dispute between the Pope of Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople came to a head in 1054 when the Pope’s representative, Cardinal Humbert, laid a Bull of Excommunication against the Patriarch on the altar of the Hagia Sophia during a Liturgy. Things went downhill from there.
After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was converted into the Ottoman Empire’s imperial mosque. And so it remained until 1935, when Ataturk transformed the great edifice into a museum as part of his secularization of Turkey.
Entering the museum was an emotional moment for me. I had kidded my wife that I planned to yell, “Give it back!” I didn’t do that, of course. Still, as we entered the great edifice: I crossed myself and said a quiet prayer.
But what a place! The inside is unbelievably vast, its magnificent mosaic icons—covered by plaster for centuries—still in remarkable condition. At first I was disheartened, like a French patriot might feel touring Waterloo. But I was also moved by the spiritual glory that once was, and which I sensed remains beneath the trampling of tourist feet.
In contrast to my mixed feelings, the Muslim visitors around me looked delighted as they wandered around the gigantic edifice. And who can blame them? A large Mihrab (the focal point of every mosque, being a prayer niche pointing toward Mecca) now stands where the Christian altar once was the locus of Christian worship. On either side of what used to be the altar area are hung huge medallions with Arabic writing—one translates, “Mohammad,” and the other “Allah”—clear confirmation of the past, and perhaps future, power of Islam.
As a museum, the Hagia Sophia represents the high hope that we can peacefully coexist and delight in human achievement regardless of religious differences. Indeed, during my visit I was pleased by the mutual respect Muslim and non-Muslim visitors showed toward each other.
But now, Turkey’s Islamist government threatens to destroy Hagia Sophia’s crucial “neutral” status. ANSAmed reports that the government plans to turn the former basilica into a mosque in the afternoon and evening, while allowing it to remain a museum during morning hours.
What in the world for? There is no lack of worship space in Istanbul. There are so many mosques, in fact, that the daily calls to prayer echo hauntingly throughout the city. Nor is there a shortage in the old part of town where the cathedral is located. Indeed, the impressively large and world famous Blue Mosque is in the same general complex, a mere three-minute walk across a beautiful park from Hagia Sophia.
Not only is the change unnecessary logistically, but making Hagia Sophia more difficult to access could materially hinder Istanbul’s thriving tourist industry. Non-Muslims might be especially reluctant to visit as they would have to be careful not to insult Islam in the way they acted and dressed. For example, since it would be a mosque, visitors would have to remove their shoes and women might not be allowed into the designated prayer area.
So why do it? I can only think of one reason: As a shout of Islamic triumphalism. What a mistake that would be. Christians would rightly consider it an intentional insult. The international community would see it as an open rejection of its diversity agenda. Moreover, I think that a relatively secular Turkey acting so radically would demonstrate to the world that despite moderate Muslims’ many assurances to the contrary, contemporary Islam is intolerant in outlook, belligerent toward non-believers, and dangerously hegemonist in its intentions.
As an historical and architectural treasure, Hagia Sophia belongs to all of us. In this regard, it is worth noting that the basilica/imperial mosque anchors Istanbul’s Historical Area, listed by UNESCO as a “World Heritage Site of Outstanding Universal Value.” That being so, the international community should make it unequivocally clear that Turkey’s government should leave well enough alone.