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  • Writer's pictureCactusflower

We can all use a little Holy Wisdom

Updated: Sep 10, 2022

Hagia Sophis, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, in Istanbul.  Formerly a museum, now converted to a mosque.
With the Golden Horn and the Bosporus as a backdrop, Hagia Sophia is the stuff of history and legends.

Looking out from Gulhane Park on the grounds of Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, our view was grand and truly fit for emperors, sultans, kings, and conquerors: to the left, the Golden Horn; straight ahead, the Bosporus, separating Europe and Asia; and to the right, the Sea of Marmara, leading to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. This strategic location has been home to many civilizations—the Greeks, briefly the Persians, the Romans, the Ottomans— with names that evoke grand myths and legends that helped shape who we are today. Whether known as Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul, it is one of the world’s most historic cities.

We were in Gulhane Park in March 2019 for the annual Istanbul Tulip Festival (how the Ottoman Turks gave Europe the tulip is another story) and, as we walked the grounds of Topkapi, reminders of man’s historic past were everywhere. Just down the road from Topkapi is the Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet on the site of the palace of the Byzantine Emperors, and Constantine’s Hippodrome.

The tomb of Mehmet the Conqueror in the Fatih Mosque.

Not far away is the Fatih Mosque, which holds the mortal remains of Mehmet the Conqueror who brought Constantinople crashing down in 1453, threatened Europe and Christianity, and established one of the world’s great empires. The Fatih Mosque was built over the ruins of the Church of the Holy Apostles, which predates the Hagia Sophia by almost two hundred years, and which was the resting place of the Emperor Constantine and most emperors who followed him, as well as the relics of Saints Andrew, Luke, and Timothy.

Across from the Blue Mosque sits the Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, the biggest cathedral in Christendom for a thousand years. Mehmet the Conqueror had converted the Hagia Sophia, and most churches, into mosques. To the victor belongs the spoils. But he had left the beautiful mosaics and frescoes of Hagia Sophia untouched, ordering them plastered over instead of destroying them. There are some things that should not be destroyed.

Christ the Pantocrator mosaic in Hagia Sophia.

In 1935, with the establishment of the secular Republic of Turkey, the ancient churches were once again converted, this time into museums. In this way, they could not only honor the history of both religions, but also fall under the care of the Ministry of Culture. The Hagia Sophia was one of many throughout Turkey to which scholars, artists and historians turned their attention. Mosaics and ancient paintings were restored. Money raised from tourism helped fund much needed repairs. The Hagia Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom, the second figure in the Holy Trinity--the Son, Jesus Christ—became the largest tourist attraction in Turkey.

Virgin Mary with the Christ Child mosaic in Hagia Sophia. Curtains cover this mosaic during Islamic prayers now.

In 1985, the Hagia Sophia, as part of a group called the “Historic Areas of Istanbul,” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO has called it “an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”

Not anymore.

In July of this year, the Turkish courts, citing an Ottoman law (yes, an Ottoman law, although the Ottoman Empire fell at the beginning of the 20th century and the Republic of Turkey was established in 1923) declared that it was rightly a mosque and could not be a museum.

The court’s reasoning was this, according a Turkish newspaper: “The conversion of the Hagia Sophia Mosque into a museum was unlawful as it violated the will of its endower, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror.” (The one who died in 1481.)

The real reason was simply domestic politics, that great motivator of politicians everywhere attempting to stay in office. The Turkish president’s base leans conservative and religiously right. With his popularity sinking, he wanted to make them happy. This move also appealed to some (though not all) of his Middle Eastern and Muslim allies as he continues his balancing act of being both a member of NATO and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In the 2020 environment of a global pandemic, environmental disasters, and our own divisive and critical national election, it is easy to understand how something like the change in status of a museum to a mosque in Turkey failed to register as important on our radar. But the Hagia Sophia matters—to our history, the world’s history, and just to what is right in the world.

Although Turkey has a secular government, in the last decade, there has been a change in trajectory, sometimes subtle, sometimes outright. The country seems to be heading more towards an Islamic state. It has shown neglect, if not hostility, to its Christian minority and the Christian part of its heritage and roots.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia isn’t the only one that has been turned back into a mosque. Last year, I wrote in my blog about the Hagia Sophia, the “hidden gem” in Iznik, which was built in the 6th century by Justinian I and was the site of the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. (Iznik is the Turkish name for Nicaea.) The Iznik Hagia Sophia was also a museum and the focal point for foreign tourism to Iznik, numbering about 40,000 tourists per year—certainly not on the scale of Istanbul, but Iznik is off the beaten track and not easy to get to.

Again, not anymore.

It became the Orhan Mosque in 2011.

Hagia Sophia Museum (now the Orhan Mosque) Iznik.

A New York Times article entitled “A Church That Politics Turned into a Mosque” was a sad harbinger of what lay ahead for Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. One visitor to Iznik’s Hagia Sophia summed it up: “We should protect our historical heritage, and that includes the Christian heritage.” The people of Iznik did not want this to happen. But the politicians did.

Iznik is also home to a fantastic archeological discovery, the remains of a 1500-year old Christian basilica on the floor of the local lake. This major discovery was made in 2014 and could be a huge attraction for visitors to Iznik, but progress has been slow rolled by the Turkish authorities, who seem to have little interest in anything Christian.

A ceiling in Chora Church (now mosque) in Istanbul.

Then, on Aug. 21, Turkish President Erdogan went after the Chora Museum, which dates to the sixth century Byzantine Empire, when it was the Chora Church. It is known for its 14th-century frescos and mosaics, which are regarded among the finest examples of Byzantine art in the world. The Chora Church is called “the Sistine Chapel of Byzantium.” Erdogan signed a decree that ordered the management of the museum be moved under the Religious Affairs Directorate and the mosque is now open for worship.

The Turkish government, under its current leadership, has been attempting to marginalize Christians and Christianity in Turkey for about a decade. The Turkish President took away quite a bit of land from the Syriac-Aramaic Christians in the country's southeast, around Mardin, about ten years ago, but the Turkish courts made him return it. This land had belonged to the Syriacs, these people who use Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, in their worship services, for more than a thousand years.

All it takes is a look at a map to see that Christians would have spread out across the Roman Empire into Asia Minor and into what is now Turkey. It certainly was not an attempt to subvert Islam, which was not yet around, but a matter of geography. It was the known world. Christians have lived in Anatolia (the main body of Turkey) since early Christianity, as some of the Apostles, including Peter, Paul, and John, traveled, and even settled in regions in Turkey. Indeed, they were first called “Christians” in Antioch, present day Antakya.

House of the Virgin Mary near Ephesus.

Peter established one of the first Christian churches at Antioch, and John is said to have taken Mary to Ephesus, near Selçuk in western Turkey. There is a House of the Virgin Mary nearby, where tradition says that Mary lived out her last days. John wrote his Gospel in Ephesus, and the Book of Revelation on the island of Patmos, off the coast of present-day Turkey. All the Seven Churches of Revelation are in Turkey. The Basilica of St. John in Ephesus is where he is believed to have been buried.

There has also been a Jewish presence for thousands of years. Noah’s Ark is thought to be on the top of Mount Ararat, in eastern Anatolia near the borders of Turkey, Armenia and Iran. The cave where Abraham was born is near Urfa in southeastern Turkey, as is Harran and many sites mentioned in the Old Testament. According to references in the New Testament, Konya, Ephesus, and Galatia all had synagogues.

But that was then, and this is now. Turkey belongs to the Turks; it is the country their ancestors fought for. I am not trying to make Turkey a Christian nation. It is a secular nation, with a predominately Muslim population.

There was a popular hit song back in 1953 called “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” with lyrics that go like this:

Istanbul was Constantinople

Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople

Been a long time gone, Constantinople

Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night.

So take me back to Constantinople

No, you can't go back to Constantinople

Been a long time gone, Constantinople

Why did Constantinople get the works?

That's nobody's business but the Turks.

It is not for us to tell the Turks what to do within their country. But the Hagia Sophia and all these old historic sites really belong to all of us, much as the Acropolis and the Parthenon belong to Greece, but they also belong to mankind. That’s why UNESCO has World Heritage Sites.

Inside the Hagia Sophia with both Christian and Islamic elements.

We should not hold Christian services in the Hagia Sophia. But we also should not hold Muslim services there. The days of the Hagia Sophia as a place of worship are long past. The emperors are gone, the sultans are gone. But the history still lives there. The evolving of the Christian faith, the movement of Islam into Asia Minor and the throughout the Ottoman Empire is still there. The frescoes and mosaics that even a conqueror would not destroy should not be covered. The Hagia Sophia belongs to the world.

All of Turkey is a mosaic of civilizations. Layer upon layer. Neolithic, Early Bronze, Assyrian, Hittite, Phrygian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Selcuk, Ottoman. You can find the ruins of Ancient Troy or Göbekli Tepe, older than Stonehenge. Turkey is the keeper of all these magnificent jewels. And that includes the Hagia Sophia.

I ask the Turks who decide these things to read the poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” written in 1926 by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

The poet, frustrated with his home country, “no country for old men,” writes “I have sailed the seas and come to the holy city of Byzantium.” There, the poet hopes to find a place where he can transcend old age and mortality in the city that has been a meeting point for various ethnicities, cultures, religions, and traditions. Byzantium can teach people eternal and otherworldly wisdom—and Holy Wisdom— “of what is past, or passing, or to come."

What ultimately happens to Hagia Sophia and the other old churches will tell us what will happen to all the bridges in our civilization that connect our past, present, and future. Don't let this one go. Bring it up to your elected representatives. Mention it to your teachers, ministers, imams, and rabbis. I know there is hope that this wonderful testament to the history of western civilization and the co-mingling and tolerance of civilizations can one day be restored as a symbol of the best of man in art, architecture, thought and religion—and as a museum, honoring all of our history.

The recently discovered angels of the Hagia Sophia dome.

Sailing to Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young

In one another's arms, birds in the trees Those dying generations - at their song, The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect Monuments of unageing intellect. An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick, unless Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing For every tatter in its mortal dress, Nor is there singing school but studying Monuments of its own magnificence; And therefore I have sailed the seas and come To the holy city of Byzantium. O sages standing in God's holy fire As in the gold mosaic of a wall, Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre, And be the singing-masters of my soul. Consume my heart away; sick with desire And fastened to a dying animal It knows not what it is; and gather me Into the artifice of eternity. Once out of nature I shall never take My bodily form from any natural thing, But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make Of hammered gold and gold enamelling To keep a drowsy Emperor awake; Or set upon a golden bough to sing To lords and ladies of Byzantium Of what is past, or passing, or to come.


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