Museum to Mosque: Why Hagia Sophia Matters
July 16, 2020 | Published first in The Catholic Thing
Canceling history has become popular these days. It started in America but has spread to Italy, Spain, England, Belgium, and most recently Turkey. Some of the main techniques involve toppling and desecrating monuments and statues that function as outdoor museums, which tell the history of the people who have made history. You can start to know the history of a city by exploring the statues and monuments in city parks and common areas.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan just joined the others by declaring his intention to convert the majestic Christian Basilica, Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) – currently a national museum and one of the most visited sites of Turkey – into a mosque. And the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative body, has decided he may do so.
What is the history behind Hagia Sophia?
[It] is distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church.
Procopius of Caesarea (circa 500-565 A.D.), a prominent Byzantine historian, described Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (now Istanbul) thus in his book De Aedificiis – On Buildings, written around 554. He also credited the Emperor Justinian for promoting this magnificent work, among others.
Justinian’s church became an icon of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The emperor was so pleased with the result that during its dedication ceremony in December 537, he exclaimed: “O Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” comparing the church to the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
For 900 years, Hagia Sophia was the center of the Byzantine Empire: the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople; the place where ecumenical councils were convened and emperors were crowned, and night vigils and majestic processions were held until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans on May 29, 1453.
Sultan Mehmet II, walking through the streets of the conquered city, “dismounted at the door of the church and bent down to take a handful of earth, which he then sprinkled over his turban as an act of humility before God.” The sultan converted the Church of Hagia Sophia to the Great Mosque of Aya Sofya, which it remained until 1934, when a decree by the Turkish Republic’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, turned the building into a museum.
In 1985, UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization – declared it a World Heritage Site.
Why does keeping the museum status of Hagia Sophia matter?
It matters to history and it matters to people, both Christians and Muslims. It is important to preserve memory, and museums and statues are proven to be preservers of culture and religion – of what deserves to be kept, remembered, treasured, and transmitted to future generations.
As a remembrance of both the Church of Hagia Sophia and the Mosque of Aya Sofya, the museum has had a proven legitimacy. The museum has not only served as a record of centuries-old history but also as a transmitter of knowledge from the Byzantine-Roman and Ottoman Empires to the Turkish Republic of Atatürk. This magnificent, once-religious object is a visible and tangible reminder of empires and religions of the Mediterranean world, beautifully synthesized on this site.
Since early in his political career, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has regretted Atatürk’s conversion of the Mosque of Aya Sofya into a museum. Instead, he prefers a cancellation of more than 900 years of Christian history, to the great consternation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, the Russian Patriarch Kirill, and Pope Francis.
For Bartholomew I, Hagia Sophia is a holy site in which East and West have embraced, and the cancellation of this memory will cause a sharp break between these two worlds. By keeping its status as a museum, the site would continue to serve as an example of solidarity and mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam.
Patriarch Kirill of Russia considers the conversion of the Hagia Sophia museum to a mosque to be a threat to Christianity. In a recent interview with Interfax, Metropolitan Hilarion, head of the Department for External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, expressed disappointment with Erdogan’s cancel-history attitude, saying: “Hagia Sophia is a world heritage site. It is not without reason that the talks about changing its status have shaken the whole world, and especially the Christian world. The church is devoted to Christ, Sophia the Wisdom of God is one of the names of Christ.”
Just this weekend, Pope Francis, who has gone out of his way to cultivate relations with Muslims, spoke out with uncharacteristic frankness: “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia. I am very distressed.”
History cannot be destroyed, canceled, or changed. Even some Turks have objected to their president’s efforts to make it into a single, false story.
For Catholics, history bears a transcendent meaning, a message to convey and a lesson to be learned – and the historian is called to discern the roots of that meaning. History is not linear or ideological – or, far worse, to be used for political purposes – but continually calls for new reflection and fresh analysis, so that the past is revisited and mistakes are not repeated.
The great Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote in De Oratore, Historia magistra vitae est (“History is life’s teacher”). History, its monuments and museums, should not be destroyed or canceled, especially in an effort to dominate the present. They have a right to speak to us – and be heard.
As for Hagia Sophia, time will tell how the cancel-history fashion will play out in Turkey. For now, it appears that Muslim prayers will once again be heard on July 27 in the most magnificent structure of the Eastern Church.
© 2020 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Image: View of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople by Eduard Hildebrandt, c. 1852 [The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia]