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Haghia Sophia: The First Great Martyr of Christian Art and Architecture, by Nikolaos Manginas

It all started with the Church of Haghia Sophia in Nicaea. Then Haghia Sophia in Trabzon. Both of these glorious Byzantine churches – which functioned for many decades as museums – have now been turned into mosques, a harsh reminder of their forced conversion centuries ago.  And this in accordance with recent sudden decisions by modern political authorities.

It is well known that following the Fall of the Byzantine Empire, numerous churches were converted to mosques by the Ottomans. With the establishment of the modern Turkish Republic in 1923, the same spaces were gradually converted into museums, which is what also occurred with the Great Church, Istanbul’s Haghia Sophia, in 1934. Nevertheless, there are now indications that certain factions are endeavoring to cultivate in popular opinion the notion that Haghia Sophia of Istanbul, the symbol of Christian faith, should be turned into a mosque. A few months ago, a Turkish citizen submitted an application to the National Assembly for the conversion of Haghia Sophia into a mosque.

An even greater surprise came from the official magazine of Turkish Airlines, Skylife (Issue 361, August 2013). The cover featured a lithograph of the church drawn from the period of the Ottoman Empire and entitled “Haghia Sophia: The Sultans’ Mosque.” The lengthy tribute – totaling twelve pages in Turkish and English – presented the history of Haghia Sophia from only an Ottoman perspective, especially highlighting the period during which it served as a mosque. This selective memory cannot remain unnoticed by anyone who knows that for one thousand years without interruption, Haghia Sophia comprised the most significant Church of Christendom. Moreover, to this day it remains a powerful symbol for all Christians, especially the Orthodox.

This articles appropriates the image of Haghia Sophia to be a symbol of the Ottomans and a point of reference for the Sultans. Even though the article includes references to the construction of the church, as well as the ages of Iconoclasm and the Crusades, the claim is that the golden age of Haghia Sophia commenced in 1453 and the Fall of Constantinople.  The whole history of Haghia Sophia is then set to spin around the axis of the Sultans.

Furthermore, in this publication, art historian Prof. Semavi Eyice states: “The Hagia Sophia is statically flawed by having a central dome perched atop a long basilica structure. The building was damaged in earthquakes because the dome is unable to bear the pressure. The architect Sinan correctly identified this weakness in the Hagia Sophia and reinforced it, ensuring its survival to our day. At the same time, Sinan was impressed by the Hagia Sophia, which became an instructive model for him.” Moreover, Rotterdam University of Islam Prof. Ahmet Akgunduz observes: “The Conqueror’s Hagia Sophia Foundation document tells the story of the Hagia Sophia and of the building of the five great imperial mosques as well as of the properties, both movable and immovable, that belong to these complexes. At the end there are also some harsh words for those who would violate the terms of the foundation. Putting aside historic rivalries and mutual hostilities, Hagia Sophia should be restored as soon as possible to the spiritual aura for which it yearns.”

The special tribute of Turkish Airlines, Skylife mentions the return of the building to its former “spiritual aura.” No one would disagree with such a judgment, but we would like to remind readers that the scenes depicted on the Royal Gate still await the fragrance of incense. Beneath their asbestos covering, the Icons – the unique images and mosaics of historical, spiritual and cultural value – are nostalgic for the sound of hymns. We must honestly admit once and for all that, in this structure, everything – from the slightest pebble to the dome that surpassed all expectations – happened for the glory of the Risen Christ and His Church. It all happened under Justinian, the Roman Emperor, for the Roman Empire that overcame all challenges and dimensions of this world (which in fact constantly tried to eliminate it!) and which ultimately became a universal concept, becoming, therefore, ecumenical.

Times changed. In the place of horses bearing Emperors anointed by God’s mercy, conquerors entered the Great Church. Yet, from that reality to a claim and description of Haghia Sophia as the Sultans’ Mosque, that gap cannot be bridged. The selective presentation of the Church’s true history, a history that transformed nations and cultures, is unacceptable. It is truly astonishing that not a single word was printed to even sketch those moments of history. What of the magnificent moments of the Consecration of this spectacular Church? The enthronements of Patriarchs and installations of Emperors? The singularly sublime Services? The splendid lighting of the lamps, the feasts and the festivals? What of the daily rhythm and official life of the Imperial City of Constantinople and its people, which evolved inside and around the Great Church? One such moment is precisely the reason for which the whole Slavic world boasts of its over one thousand years of Faith in Christ.  Because their predecessors, the people of Rus, entered the Great Church of Christ and witnessed  and attended the awe-inspiring Divine Liturgy. Not knowing whether they were standing on earth or in heaven, they asked to be baptized in the waters of this faith, which created and still creates such universal wonders.

Last February, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew provided an interview to the widely circulated Turkish newspaper Milliyet. On being asked, among other questions, about opinions formulated by some on the reopening of Haghia Sophia as a mosque, he emphasized that it could only be reopened as a Christian church, otherwise it should remain a museum. The Ecumenical Patriarch declared: “With regard to Haghia Sophia in Istanbul, it served as a Christian church for over one thousand years. If it is to reopen as a house of worship, then it should open as a Christian church. Because it was built as a church and not a mosque.”

Concluding our remarks, we certainly hope that this Church will return from its nostalgic silence, but only if it is to return to its original function and purpose, for which the finest and costliest materials were gathered into one location from all parts of the world “so that Justinian might conquer Solomon.”

Note: For historical accuracy, we should remind readers that the architect Mimar Sinan (1489-1588), who designed the largest mosque of the city, the Suleymaniye Mosque, was born of Greek Orthodox parents from the village of Sts. Anargyroi (Ağırnaz) in Cappadocia, near Caesarea, and was a victim of the forced levy and conversion of children (devşirme).