Hagia Sophia Ayasofya Holy Wisdom: Whose Is She?

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“One day Constantinople will be conquered,” wrote the Prophet Muhammad. “How beautiful its conqueror and how beautiful that conqueror’s soldier.” 

Moustafa the night clerk, in an aureole of black curls, had bent his head over a medical textbook under a small shaded lamp at the miniscule Reception. He smiled dozily at my arrival, and left his duties at the textbook to lead me up to the roof to show me where breakfast would be served. I was staring out to the starry Sea of Marmara, enveloped by the plushness of the night, when Moustafa gently directed me to turn around. There, swelling up at us from the night sky, from a blackness as if from another world, heaved the vaulted floodlit bulk of Hagia Sophia, queen of churches in the Byzantine cosmos. It seemed to hang in the air right above us under the roof of heaven.

The Greeks called the church Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, the Ottomans, Aya Sofya. They made a mosque of it in 1453, eventually plastered over the mosaics and erected four superb minarets at its four corners. Sultan Murat IV, the Conqueror of Baghdad, delighted in this incomparable mosque, and when he came there to pray, attendants hung cages of singing birds near the southern door, particularly nightingales, “so that their sweet notes, mingled with those of the muezzins’ voices, filled the mosque with a harmony approaching that of paradise.”

My mouth will speak words of wisdom, the utterance of my heart will give understanding. Ps 49 3:1-2

For almost a thousand years (537 CE – 1453) the great Mother Church of Byzantium, Hagia Sophia, had stood triumphant in Constantinople as the place in all of Christendom where those who entered “knew not whether they had entered Paradise” (as recorded of an awestruck tenth-century emissary  from pagan Rus to the Imperial capital on the Bosphorus.) But 1453 – catastrophe! Holy Wisdom may have seemed eternal but the Byzantine Empire was decidedly rickety and Constantine’s city dangerously vulnerable to assault. It fell (or was conquered, depending on where you stood) to the Ottoman Turks on Tuesday May 29 when sultan Mehmed II cantered through shattered gates in triumph and claimed Hagia Sophia for Muslim worship.

As Ayasofya it was a mosque until the Ottoman Empire in its turn fell in the aftermath of the Great War, a secular republic was proclaimed and in 1934 the Ayasofya mosque was decommissioned, so to speak, and declared a museum, affiliated with the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Fifty years later, it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. So far, so secular.

In the early 1990s, however, in what professor of Islamic Studies at Stanford University Anna Bigelow called “rituals of majoritarian grievance” (in a webinar October 9 2020), crowds of Muslim worshippers began to congregate to pray outside Ayasofya Müzesi on the anniversary of the Conquest.  Then massive petitions circulated online to have it reconverted to a mosque. In June 2018 a survey among 6000 Turks older than 18 asked: “Should Hagia Sophia be converted into a mosque and open to worship?” YES: 78.6%; NO 21.4%

Muslim crowds outside Hagia Sophia

Good as done.

A council of State decision, followed by a presidential decree on July 10 2020, “within hours” annulled the 1934 regulation. In the Globe and Mail Michael Coren wrote: “…the Islamic call to prayer was recited, and the museum’s social media pages were shuttered.”  It was reported that, after signing the decree,Turkey’s excitable president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was so moved that he had been unable to sleep all night. Four days later “thousands” of Muslim faithful were on their way to Ayasofya for the first Friday prayers in 86 years.

I clipped and printed out many accounts of that day, from nonpartisan reportage to partisan – achingly, exuberantly, triumphantly, mournfully partisan – testimonials and homilies, press releases and op eds.

President Erdogan arrives in Hagia Sophia

Accompanied by 500 dignitaries, cheered on by those thousands who had arrived and were now packed in the newly-segregated (men and women) squares around the mosque. President Erdoğan arrived at noon, entered the church/museum/mosque and took his place as Prof.Ali Erbaş, head of the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, climbed up on the minbar, gripping the hilt of the “sword of conquest” and gave his sermon. According to a post on Public Orthodoxy, “Erbaş’s sermon presents a sacred narrative of Turkish national history, where the Turkish state is appointed by God to be the patron of all who live within its dominion.”  The drawn sword, it turns out, dates back to the fifteenth-century “signifying that Hagia Sophia was a mosque acquired through holy warfare.”

A hotel manager: “Ayasofya is reconquered.” His wife: “Turkey’s Muslims have taken back what was theirs.”

A retired businessman: “This is a festival for us today. We are so happy.”

President Erdoğan: “This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains. It was the greatest dream of our youth.”

Adem Yilmaz, worshipper: “This turned into a place where all hearts beat at once.”

UNESCO World Heritage Site: “The Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque.”

“As for Agia Sophia, well, it depends on degrees. Is there some Muslim prayer, and then the museum resumes? I heard they cover the mosaics for some time everyday. It is hard to judge if one is not there to see. As a woman, I know I would be a lot happier to be in a museum free of the headscarf police in a mosque. Many feel it was a purely political gimmick, fear-mongering and garnering Islamic prestige and power politics.’ [an email from a friend in Athens]

Curtains cover the apse mosaic

Here and there were people who wondered what was going to happen to the “human images” – a stupendous achievement of Byzantine mosaic art and spirituality – that are offensive to Muslims at prayer. Straight off, in fact, to cover as needed the image of the Mother of God and Christ Child, workers clambered up and into the sky-high apse and installed curtains, but so far there seems no intention to replaster the images. Scholars and conservationists raised concerns about the status of the on-going conservation work now that the museum’s stewardship has been transferred to a religious authority: tesserae on mosaics are becoming detached, red paint from the 1980s has to be removed, research on the mortar in the ancient brick walls is still underway.

But normally, I think it fair to say, the western reading public would not overly-concern itself with the political and religious agenda at play in the fate of an old church just barely inside Europe. Take Mark Twain, who visited Hagia Sophia in 1869:

How Hagia Sophia became a museum

I had been reading his The Innocents Abroad on the sun-struck roof of the hotel, the paperback propped up against a salt shaker, while I scooped up breakfast – a boiled egg, packets of cream cheese and cherry jam and honey, black and green olives, tomato and cucumber slices, bread, cookies, tea, with wasps crawling over my honey-sticky fingers. ”I do not think much of the Mosque of St. Sophia,” Twain wrote. “I suppose I lack appreciation. We will let it go at that. It is the rustiest old barn in heathendom.”

Perhaps it was a shambolic sight, a Byzantine masterpiece stripped of bells and crosses, icons and relics, its ponderous architecture propped up by massive buttresses, its marble flooring randomly covered by strips of carpet, the incomparable mosaics – those that had not been excised – plastered over in the 18th century and not uncovered until 1931.

But when its patron, Roman Emperor Justinian I first entered its completed space in 537, having “disregarded all considerations of expense and raised craftsmen from the whole world,” he is said to have declaimed “Glory be to God, who hath thought me worthy to accomplish so great a work. I have vanquished thee O Solomon!”

Justinian I

Vast in scale, immense in cost, marbles and spolia taken from five pagan monuments – its green marble pillars once fortified Artemis’s own sanctuary in Ephesus – it took only five years to build. In his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Edward Gibbon described the emperor himself, “clad in a linen tunic” who “surveyed each day the rapid progress” of ten thousand labourers and made sure each was paid promptly at the end of the day. The bedazzled visitor for centuries to come would behold a sanctuary that contained “forty thousand pound weight of silver, and the holy vases and vestments of the altar were of the purest gold, enriched with inestimable gems.” As for the dome:

… And so the visitor’s mind is lifted up to God and floats aloft, thinking that He cannot be far away, but must love to dwell in this place which He himself has chosen. Procopius, De Aedificiis

Dome of Hagia Sophia

May 27, 1453: Hagia Sophia was thronged with worshippers when the besieging forces of the Ottomans had scaled the “impenetrable” land walls and had already arrived at the church’s mighty bronze doors which eventually gave way. “The pillage continued all day long.” 

Even so, when Sultan Mehmet approached Hagia Sophia as its conqueror, his horse wading through streams of blood, he dismounted and bent over to the ground to scoop up a handful of earth. This he sprinkled over his turban as a sign of humility, or perhaps of penance, for inside the cathedral was unfolding a scene of such bestial ferocity   – rape and murder of priests and nuns and cowering citizens, and the systematic looting and destruction of religious objects, of marble and silver and gold – that the last Patriarch to celebrate Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia is said to have taken the Chalice and Host into his hands and disappeared into a crack in the walls, there to be sealed up until the day the Cross triumphs over the Crescent on the church’s stupendous domes and he re-emerges to finish the Mass.

As for the Byzantines, they had vanished into thin air after the conquest, or so I had been led to believe. Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul

What happened next is illuminating – something entirely new in my education – that strips at least some of the cynicism from the text of the brochure distributed by Erdoğan’s AKP [Justice and Development Party [whose symbol is an illuminated light bulb] : “Turkey has been delicately cherishing the historical, cultural and spiritual value of Hagia Sophia since the conquest of Istanbul.”

Mehmet the Conqueror was by no means oblivious to the prestige that the monumental glory of Hagia Sophia lent his ambitions. Without changing the city’s name, he had declared Constantinople the new imperial capital and Holy Wisdom as “the church most suited to the sultan’s dignity.”  As though an awe-struck emissary himself from an abode of the profane, he is said to have wandered through his new possession and climbing into the dome “as the spirit of God had mounted to the fourth story of the heavens.” And at once ordered it repaired and made fitting as the royal mosque. Unsurprisingly, then, Mehmet II was to see himself, as conqueror of Constantinople, Byzantium’s legitimate heir.

Paradise, paradise, heaven, angels, Cosmos: we all want a piece of it. Moustafa at the hotel told me that the postures performed at prayer – the bending at the waist, the crouching on the haunches – were performed in imitation of the postures of the angels who once greeted the Prophet from all the levels of heaven when he was taken up to meet God. I loved that idea, that one could be like the angels with a swoop and a bend of our human body. Though Mustafa’s place of prayer would never countenance music or icon, nor altar or sacrament or priest, it has admitted the dance of the angels.

Myths were fashioned for this enterprise. A mythical ruler, Yanko bin Madyan, had been guided by a dream to found Constantinople; it was constructed of materials from Solomon’s ruined Temple; its doors from the wood of Noah’s Ark; among its treasures, the stone cradle of baby Jesus. “Sixteenth-century authors…refer to Hagia Sophia as the second Ka’ba for the poor who could not afford the pilgrimage to Mecca.” Of course, at the same time the devout and the visitor would be impressed over and over by the rich visual affirmation of Islam’s subjugation of the Byzanto-Christian past, even as they spread their prayer rugs on its consecrated marble.

Patr. Bartholomew delivers Homily

Orthodox Christians, however, are inconsolable. While Muslims gathered from across Turkey to join the inaugural prayers at the church/museum/mosque, Orthodox Christian church leaders in Greece and the USA announced a Day of Mourning for “the confiscation of our Αγία Σοφία.” “We do not mourn only for ourselves,” His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros preached from Holy Trinity Archdiocesan Cathedral in New York. “We mourn for the whole world whose loss this is,” he asserted, echoing other clergy including the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader who in his Homily of June 30, 2020, reminded listeners that, as a museum, Hagia Sophia was “the symbolic place of encounter, dialogue, solidarity and mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam.” His words were carefully chosen, given the delicacy of his position in an increasingly nationalist and Islamist Turkish state.

In a sign of solidarity with the Patriarch, Yuri Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada sent out a call to all his clergy and Brothers and Sisters in Christ to “unite in prayer” with his for the intercession of the Blessed Mother of God on July 24, 2020.

To You the Champion, we your City dedicate
a feast of victory and then thanksgiving,
as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos.
But as you are one with might that is invincible,
from all dangers that can be, deliver us.

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times and Comments posted July 24, 2020 a reader raised the spectre of “colonialism and genocide” in the “taking over” of a people’s [Greek Orthodox] Holy Church, referencing perhaps what Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk had called “conquest fever.” In 1955, in the wake of the 500th anniversary of the “great miracle” of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, rampaging mobs for two days sacked and burned and raped in the Greek districts of Istanbul. “It later emerged that the organizers of this riot – whose terror…made the city more hellish than the worst orientalist nightmares – had the state’s support and had pillaged the city with its blessing.” Istanbul p.158

Indeed, behind the heated populism of Erdoğan’s rhetoric recorded in AKP’s brochure – that “there was a great demand from the people of Turkey, that this historic building regain its identity as a mosque” – observers see also a neo-Ottomanist second conquest of Constantinople. And a rectification of the “sinful act, a gesture to the West, offensive to the pious,” of having made Hagia Sophia a museum in the first place.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

The status of museum had been conferred by a regulation of the secular Turkish state under its long-revered founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). When I travelled in Turkey in 2011 and 2015, his image was ubiquitous, from state institutions to neighbourhood bakeries, from schools to gas stations. In 2015 the tour guide disclosed to us, somewhat furtively, that already Erdoğan’s portrait was being included cultishly alongside Atatürk’s in sacrosanct places such as the frontispieces of school textbooks. His critics have accused him of inciting “culture war” and the “clash of civilizations” when he appeals to his political base that, in the symbolism of Ayasofya/Hagia Sophia, he is defending national sovereignty. Meanwhile, they go on, Turkey’s economy is weakening, prices are rising, and his political opponents are censored and worse: arrested and made to disappear in prisons without trial. 

But Kemal, so much admired in the West for his fashioning of a democratic, secular republic from the ashes of “the sick man of Europe,” the Ottoman caliphate, is evaluated by the writer-historian Karen Armstrong as “a dictator who hated Islam…Western approval of Atatürk led many to believe that the West sought to destroy Islam itself.” The Kemalist transformation – abolishing Shariah law, outlawing the Sufi orders and seizure of their properties, and the shutting down of the madrasses [religious schools] – was a “spiritual and cultural trauma” for the devout.

Soviet propaganda poster. Religion is the narcotic of the people

I admit to a certain fellow feeling when I review images of Soviet Bolshevism’s violent take-down of ordinary people’s faith and piety – burning liturgical books, smashing icons, pulling down church cupolas, humiliating village priests, outlawing Christian Feasts and festivities, the whole demonic Carnival of Reason.

Visit to Kadilli Girls’ School, Istanbul

In 2011, thanks to an invitation from my schoolteacher friend Taner, I spent a day at Kandilli Girls’ Anatolian High School in Istanbul, where he taught English. A bevy of girls, unscarved but in uniforms, whisked me around the bucolic grounds and building that overlooked the Bosphorus, chattering in bursts of creditable English, and led me to the office of the Headmaster, Dr.Abdurrahman Memiş, who, Taner informed me, is a scholar of Islamic theology, and I assumed that the green book open on his desk under his folded hands was a copy of the Qur’an. Dr. Memiş does not speak English but through Taner’s translation we managed a conversation of sorts.“In your view,” I enquired conversationally, “do you think there is a possibility of mutual understanding among the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam?” “Yes,” Taner translated his response with enthusiastic approbation, “it is a fact that correct Islam teaches that any Muslim who does not honour the Hebrew and Christian prophets, Mary and Jesus included, cannot call himself a Muslim.”

I was still mulling over the likelihood of some Christians on the wilder shores of the faith honouring the prophets of other people’s faith when I was whisked onward to the school’s Assembly Hall and onto the stage festooned with balloons and large cut-out letters spelling my name. I was presented an enormous bouquet of flowers, then for an hour I responded to the questions about my books volleyed at me from two students onstage with me, who had carefully studied my website. The students and faculty had been attentive enough that I ventured a new topic: the rather emotionally-charged subject of how an Orthodox Christian from the West might feel about the monuments of Byzantium, not to mention the very memory of it, disappearing under Ottoman/Turkish triumphalism. Take the very name, Istanbul. From the fourth century of its founding by Roman Emperor, Constantine, it was called Constantinople, a name not officially changed to Istanbul until 1930; even the Ottomans had kept the Byzantine name. The name Istanbul itself lightly conceals its origins in the Greek phrase, “eis ten polin,” in the city, there being only one city worth mentioning.

The other day, I said, I had taken a photograph of a bright, new monument erected just off a main thoroughfare, a statue of Fatih Sultan Mehmet in a simple cloak and turban and posed with his left hand held peaceably across his chest. Fatih means Conqueror, the Conqueror. “You conquered Constantinople,” I said, “but for us it fell, and great were our lamentations.”

A few days later at my hotel, I picked up a booklet advertising the “Panorama 1453 History Museum.” In his Foreword, the mayor of Istanbul writes that the museum has been opened “in order to bring to life the images of those bewitching moments [of the Conquest]”. The booklet reproduces some of those images, which I saw for myself in 2015. Mehmet front and centre on a noble steed gesturing toward the walls of Constantinople, feats of engineering that blasted open the walls that had stood impenetrable for a thousand years, a scene of Janissaries raising the Ottoman flag on the devastated ramparts. “You shall hear the shouting of Taqbir (‘God is great!’) by Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s thousands of soldiers and the victory marches played by his janissary band,” the brochure came to a rousing climax.

In 2015, as far as I could tell, I was the sole non-Turkish woman visitor in the crowd, gazing in amazement at the murals, with full sound and light effects of battle. “My” empire had fallen; “theirs” had just begun its 450-year-long imperium on the self-same banks of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn.

On the apse of Hagia Sophia where surges the magnificent mosaic of the Theotokos and Child, a Koranic text had soon been inscribed after 1453, Sura 3 verse 37. In its Christian context, the verse refers to the presentation of the girl-child Mary at the Temple in Jerusalem as a dedication by her parents, Joachim and Anna, who deliver her into the care of the High Priest, Zachariah. The Qur’an continues: And thereupon her Sustainer accepted the girl-child with goodly acceptance, and caused her to grow up in goodly growth, and placed her in the care of Zachariah Whenever Zachariah visited her in the sanctuary, he found her provided with food. He would ask: “O Mary, whence came this unto thee?” She would answer: “It is from God; behold, God grants sustenance unto whom He wills, beyond all reckoning.” 

Why that text, in that place? It is not in Christian Scripture; the Feast, Entrance of the Theotokos, commemorates only a Tradition. Because (as I learned from a webinar hosted by the Cantor Center at Stanford University) it is about protection and care, as represented by Mary within Holy Wisdom. The Sura goes on, in Mohammad’s speech to Mary, that the child she will bear “will speak unto mankind in his cradle and in his manhood, and he is of the righteous…And He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, and the Torah and the Gospel.”  Was it only as a Museum that Hagia Sophia could hold all claims together in one space?

Theotokos in the apse of the Hagia Sophia

They served lentil soup, in the serene little courtyard of the Bazaar of Ottoman Arts and Crafts across from Hagia Sophia, and apple tea, and played Classical Turkish music through speakers under the roof while I kept on reading my travel guidebook.By now I had visited much in the way of museums, mosques, excavations and restorations: overtop the almost invisible Byzantine lie Ottoman marvels. Courtyards and fountains of mosques, men at their ablutions, the gorgeous blues and greens, aquamarines and emeralds, of Iznik tiles that line their interiors, the intertwined polyphony of the muezzin calling out from each mosque, the swirling sweeps of Arabic calligraphy, water, rose gardens, pomegranates, carpets, tea in delicate glasses. An early Ottoman miniature depicts the story of Abraham and Isaac who do not look here like sand-scoured patriarchs roaming the desert but like figures from The Arabian Nights, swathed in silk. From a map in the Museum of Islamic and Ottoman Arts, I saw that Turkey lies at the western margin of most of the Islamic world. The centre of the world lies east.

Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars: 2She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table.3She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city,10The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.11For by me thy days shall be multiplied, and the years of thy life shall be increased.

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Volodymyr Kish
Volodymyr Kish
2 years ago

Wonderfully written! It is interesting that it only tangentially links the religious aspects of Hagia Sophia’s importance, to the more pragmatic political dimension behind its creation and maintenance over the centuries. Emperors, kings, warlords, tyrants and conquerors of all stripes learned over the course of history that religion and its symbolic trappings were one of the most potent weapons to keep the “unwashed masses” in line and obedient to their “god given” authority!

George Melnyk
George Melnyk
2 years ago

Well done Myrna combining your personal history with the history of Turkey and of Orthodox Christianity. The re-conquest of Hagia Sophia in 2020 is more than a footnote in the history of Islam itself. It seems to be a
part of the 21st century resurgence of fundamentalist Islam that has been fought out in countries from Afghanistan to Algeria. I don’t think there is a final status for Hagia Sophia because it is has a monumental religious stature. I will never forget my visit to it when it was a museum and seeing 11th century Norse graffiti on the railing of a balcony. It will always be a place where history comes alive.

myrna kostash
myrna kostash
2 years ago
Reply to  George Melnyk

Thanks, George, for this rumination. Hagia Sophia is indeed a panorama of unbroken history which now also includes the Islamist resurgence you mention. But in my view this is not so much a resurgence as an intensification of a continuity that began when the Conqueror inserted his triumphalist rhetoric back a thousand years into that of Byzantium. Erdogan does not have to appeal to Byzantium these days but he does insert himself into an ongoing Ottomanist rhetoric that goes back its own half-millennium.