Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has ordered the Hagia Sophia museum, one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, to be converted into a mosque.
He made the announcement hours after a top court cleared the way for him to make the change.
The Hagia Sophia, a major draw for tourists, has a long and complicated history. The architectural marvel was built as a church by the Byzantines in the 6th century and then converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.
In 1934, Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s cabinet decreed that it be turned into a museum. It is widely regarded as a symbol of peaceful religious coexistence.
It is impossible to overstate to Americans how offensive and painful this is to Orthodox Christians. Imagine if St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome had been captured by the Ottomans and turned into a mosque. Imagine that for some decades, it had been declared a museum, as a gesture of religious coexistence. You couldn’t pray there as a Christian, but neither was it a Muslim house of prayer. Rather, it was a neutral space. Not ideal, not by a long shot, but tolerable. And now this.
This is not a new wound. The great and glorious church has not been a Christian house of worship since the Ottomans overthrew the Byzantine empire — with a single exception. In 1919, with Istanbul under occupation after the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottomans, a Greek Orthodox priest and a handful of Greek officers rowed ashore and made their way to the Hagia Sophia, where they celebrated the first Divine Liturgy there in nearly five centuries. More:
The Greek men entered Hagia Sophia with great reverence and crossed themselves. Papa Lefteris is then said to have whispered with great emotion: “I will enter into Your house, and I will venerate towards Your Holy Temple with fear…” (from Psalm 5, verse 7 in the Old Testament).
Father Eleftherios moved quickly, identifying the location of the Sanctuary and the Holy Altar. Finding a small table, he put it into place, then opened his bag and took out everything needed for the Divine Liturgy. Then he put on his stole and began, saying:
“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages.”
“Amen,” responded Major Liaromatis, and the Divine Liturgy at Hagia Sophia, the first one to have taken place in nearly 500 years, commenced.
The group of Greeks crossed themselves with devotion, still unable to believe that they were inside Hagia Sophia, centuries after it had fallen into the hands of Muslims. And most importantly, they were even taking part in a Divine Liturgy in the most sacred place of Orthodoxy.
The Liturgy went on as normal. After 466 years, Hagia Sophia was serving again as a temple of Christianity, the sounds of Greek psalms echoing against its sacred walls.
Papa Lefteris read the Gospel for that day, while the Epistle was read by Brigadier Frantzis. The duties of the sacristan were performed by Lieutenant Nicholas.
Meanwhile, Turks had started entering the Church. They apparently simply could not fathom what was happening before their eyes. Father Eleftherios continued the liturgy completely unperturbed.
The Turks watched in silence, still unable to grasp at that point what was actually taking place inside the Church.
Papa Lefteris placed the antimension on the table, to do the Proskomidi. He then took a small Holy Chalice out of his bag, as well as a paten, a knife and a small prosphoron with a small bottle of wine.
With sacred emotion and devotion, the priest performed the Proskomidi. When that was completed, he turned to Lieutenant Nicholas and told him to light a candle so he could follow him during the Great Entrance. The young Lieutenant went ahead and lit the candle, while behind him the priest intoned the prayer: “May the Lord God remember all of us….”
More Turks had entered Hagia Sophia during the Proskomidi, and the atmosphere was beginning to change. At the same time, Greeks from Constantinople had started filing into the Church as well. They followed the remaining of the Liturgy with devotion, but as discreetly as possible, for fear of the Turks.
When the Liturgy reached its most sacred point – the Anaphora – Father Noufrakis said with an emotional voice: “Your own of Your own, we offer to You, for all and through all.” The officers knelt and the voice of Major Liaromatis could be heard chanting: “We sing to You, we bless You, we thank You, Lord, and we pray to You, our God.”
After a short while, the bloodless sacrifice of Christ was completed in Hagia Sophia, after 466 long years.
It was followed by the “Axion Estin,” the “Our Father,” and the words “With the fear of God, faith and love draw near,” when all the officers approached to commune from the Immaculate Mysteries.
Papa Lefteris quickly said the Communion prayers while Liaromatis chanted: “Blessed be the Name of the Lord…,” while all the rest of the officers received Holy Communion. The priest then told Lieutenant Nicholas, “Gather everything quickly and put it in the bag,” before saying the prayers of the Dismissal.
The Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia was now completed. It was a tremendous feat of courage that most Greeks couldn’t even begin to dream of.
Today’s move by Erdogan is solely an act of cultural triumphalism. There are no shortages of mosques in Istanbul. There are very few Greek Christians left in Istanbul these days. This is Erdogan rubbing the noses of Christians in our defeat. It is a fact of history — a sad fact, perhaps, but a fact — that conquerors often seized the conquered’s houses of worship, and turned them into temples of the conquerors’ religion. The ancestors of Christians and Muslims are both guilty of this. If we start pulling at those historical threads, there will be no end to recriminations. I’m not for it.
That said, what Erdogan has done today is infuriating and deeply offensive. For almost a century, the Hagia Sophia has been a neutral space. Almost nobody alive today has any memory of it as a place as Islamic worship.
If you are not religious, you should still worry about what’s going to happen to the Hagia Sophia. Its Muslim conquerors covered up the church’s Byzantine mosaics, but they didn’t destroy them. After it was turned into a museum by Ataturk, the mosaics were unveiled so visitors could appreciate the art. And now? I can easily imagine that devout Muslims would want these images covered now that the building was once again a Muslim house of worship. If this happens, then the aesthetic and historical loss to the world will be severe.
What does Erdogan gain from it? This is an empty Make Turkey Great Again gesture — one that does absolutely nothing to improve the lot of the Turkish people, but stands to alienate Turkey even more from the West (though less than it ought to do, given how alienated Westerners are from our own history and religion). Russia will not take this lying down. The West (minus Greece) might not care about the Hagia Sophia, but I suspect that won’t be the case for Russia.
I visited the Hagia Sophia once, about 12 or 13 years ago. It is an overwhelming experience, and was for me especially, given that I was newly Orthodox. I prayed quietly in the church — unobtrusively, out of respect for the space’s neutrality — and tried to imagine what it was like when it was filled with believers, worshipping. It’s hard to fathom the sense of loss, and of longing.
Here’s an NPR story from earlier this year about how scientists and singers have been able to recreate the sound of Christian liturgical chanting in the Hagia Sophia. Given the echo in the vast space, the challenges to liturgical chanters were massive. Now, though, through technology, we can recreate what that special sound was like. Listen, here it is:
It’s like the very stones and arches and domes proclaim the glory of God. Or rather, proclaimed.
What Erdogan did today is an act of naked cultural aggression. Turkey must be made to pay a price. Yet I feel it important to say that Christians should by no means hold all Muslims responsible for what the strongman of Ankara has done. I fear that at least some Christians who until today would not have known the Hagia Sophia from a Howard Johnson’s will take this as an excuse to carry out acts of spite against Muslims. Don’t do it. But this ought to put an end, once and for all, to attempts like the Spanish Muslim campaign to convince the Catholic Church in Spain to allow Muslims to do Islamic prayer in the Cathedral in Cordoba, which was used as a mosque under Moorish occupation.