Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, a church in Turkey that was turned into a mosque, at sunset.

Last Friday (July 24), Hagia Sophia, the center of the Eastern Christian Orthodox faith, was turned into a mosque.

Curtains were drawn over Christian icons and crosses, as Islamic prayers were offered there for the first time in 85 years.

Hagia Sophia is the sublime architectural triumph of Justinian the Great, who dedicated it as the principal cathedral of all Christendom, East and West, in AD 537. For almost a thousand years, Hagia Sophia — the Church of the Holy Wisdom — stood in Constantinople as the largest interior space under a single, majestic dome.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Hagia Sophia to Christianity and to civilization in general. To this day, you can hear echoes of Hagia Sophia’s Divine Liturgy in the Roman Catholic Mass, the Episcopalian and Lutheran Service of the Eucharist, and Protestant services in general. The doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation of Christ and the Salvation that He wrought, were all firmly established in and around the Cathedral.

Pagan Russia was converted to Christianity in Hagia Sophia. In AD 987, Vladimir the Great, Prince of Kievan Rus, searched for a single religion to unify his people. He sent emissaries to the Jews, to the Moslems, and to the Franks, to “sample” their respective religions. The ancient Russians disliked the Muslim prohibitions against pork and alcohol. They were not impressed that the Jews had lost Jerusalem. And they felt that the Franks had no sense of beauty in their worship service.

But then they experienced Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia. They were floored by majesty and awe. “We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they reported back to Prince Vladimir, “nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.”

A year later, Prince Vladimir was baptized, along with many of his people.

The peace and beauty of Christianity, which is so often muddied in the world, stood clear in Hagia Sophia for a millennium. The music of a thousand mystical hymns sounded for centuries – such are the stones and space of the holy interior that choral echoes continue for upwards of eleven seconds.

It must have seemed that the holy music would never end.

But tragedy struck on May 29, 1453, when Constantinople fell to Ottoman forces under Sultan Mehmet II. During three days of unbridled rampage, Hagia Sophia (and the rest of the city) suffered riot and pillage. Altars and icons were ransacked. The elderly, sick, and wounded who had taken refuge there were slaughtered, along with many clergy, and the children were taken off into slavery.

When Sultan Mehmet II finally entered the storied cathedral whose beauty had once bridged heaven and earth, he claimed personal possession of Hagia Sophia, and sent one of his religious scholars to climb the high pulpit (i.e., the “Ambon”), there to proclaim the “shahada” (“There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His Prophet”).

At that very moment, Hagia Sophia became a mosque, and would remain such for the next 482 years.

In 1935, after the fall of the now-moribund Ottoman Empire, Kemal Atatürk, in his quest to make Turkey a liberal and secular society, made Hagia Sophia an international cultural museum.

A number of years ago, I toured Hagia Sophia when it was still a museum. The grandeur and beauty under the dome struck me just as it overawed the Russian visitors over a thousand years before. There were still some icons that remained of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints. They were too high up and out of reach to have been defaced by the Ottoman destroyers.

They stood serene, gazing still into the heart.

Even in the midst of hundreds of pushy, gabbing tourists from all over the world, there still remained beauty and peace.

But all that changed last Friday.

Other churches today have their glorious centers, like the grand St. Peter Basilica in Rome, the awesome Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, the magnificent Morman Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, and the many enormous structures of megachurches dotting the American landscape.

Meanwhile, my Patriarch, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, 270th of his line in the See of Andrew, cannot even minister in his rightful place in Hagia Sophia. He does have a pretty little church called St George’s, which is no bigger than St Paul’s in Edenton. It is situated in the Phanar, a compound located in a radical Islamicist neighborhood of Istanbul. The Phanar is regularly pockmarked by graffiti, occasionally with gunfire. About 20 years ago, a grenade was lobbed over the walls.

Still, in the midst of all this, as one who most keenly feels the loss of Hagia Sophia, Bartholomew has called upon Christians everywhere to pray for peace and to remember the beauty of Justinian’s cathedral, and the dome that was built to symbolize the bowl of the heavens.

So I will. I’ll pray for the peace of Jerusalem and the peace of Hagia Sophia.

After all, even in its new status of a mosque and with icons hidden behind the curtains, I’m sure that peace and beauty will remain.

Jonathan Tobias (janotec77@gmail.com) resides in Edenton, and is a lecturer in systematic and pastoral theology at Christ the Savior Seminary near Pittsburgh.