As the highly emotional and equally unreasonable “cancel culture” spreads across the globe, it is worth recalling the words of the American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan (1904-2005): “Without a generation of civilized people to study history, to preserve its records, to absorb its lessons, and relate them to its own problems, history would lose its meaning.”
Those seeking to desecrate and destroy historic monuments know that marble and stone can be just as effective as the written word in preserving history in all its messiness and glory.
The Hagia Sophia is a glorious monument in stone to the Christian faith of the Byzantine Empire, responsible for building this absolute wonder of art and architecture. Turkey, a once secular republic and Western ally, has in recent years become a bastion of Islamist-nationalism nostalgic for the days of the Ottoman Empire under its current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s government has its own form of the “cancel culture” that has sought to erase the Christian heritage of Turkey. This comes in the form of a continual denial of the Armenian genocide, the destruction of over 500 churches in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, and the conversion of historic Byzantine churches across the country into mosques, while at the same time destroying the irreplaceable art within them.
There has long been a worry that this trend would inevitably lead to the Hagia Sophia, which is the most prominent reminder of Turkey’s Christian heritage. The globally famous landmark and popular tourist destination was built in the sixth century as a church before being converted into a mosque by the Ottomans in the fifteenth century and then into a museum in the twentieth century by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secular-minded founder of the Turkish Republic.
In a decision orchestrated by Erdoğan, Turkey’s top court revoked the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum on Friday and then minutes later he issued a presidential decree ordering it be transformed yet again into a mosque.
Built under Emperor Justinian in 537 on the site of a church commissioned by the emperor Constantine, founder of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was dedicated to the glory and honor of “Holy Wisdom” Who is the Logos, that is, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. It holds historic significance as the culminating feature of the Christian era of the Roman Empire and stands as a remarkable monument to artistic and architectural achievement.
Its function as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople for nine centuries was only interrupted for a span of sixty years when, in 1204, the Fourth Crusade took one of the greatest and most tragic detours in military history. On the way to Jerusalem Crusaders were enticed into getting involved in a dispute between political factions of the Byzantine Empire. This led to their eventual sacking and widespread looting of Constantinople. The most famous reminder of this are the sculptures of the four horses from Constantinople’s hippodrome that now adorn the front facade of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. The Hagia Sophia became a Catholic cathedral and many of its treasures were looted and taken by the Crusaders back to Europe. The Byzantine’s were finally able to recapture the city in 1261.
The Hagia Sophia stood as the most prominent Christian church in the world from its construction under Justinian until until 1453 when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and it was turned into a mosque. So impressive is this edifice that much Turkish architecture is largely modeled after it, including other prominent mosques. Islam’s aversion to images meant the Hagia Sophia’s mosaics, icons, and frescoes were either destroyed or plastered over. The integrity of the structure was altered as Islamic features were added, the most prominent of which are the tall minarets on the outside from which the Muslim call to prayer never ceased to issue forth even after it became a museum.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, Atatürk turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934. He did so for the for the purposes of conserving it as a monument of world heritage and so it could stand as a symbol of tolerance and peace. In becoming a museum where restorers and conservationists were granted ready access, much of the structure’s Byzantine mosaics were recovered. For the first time in nearly 500 years the light of day shone again on the glittering images depicting the Lord Jesus Christ and His Virgin Mother. For the past ninety years all visitors have been able gaze upon these symbols of the Christian patrimony and heritage of Turkey.
Turkey’s decision to change the status of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque again has been met with protest the world over. The strongest objections, understandably, have come from the Eastern Orthodox nations of Greece and Russia, but even the United States Secretary of State and some senators have weighed in. The current Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew, is the heir to all those patriarchs before him who once sat in the Hagia Sophia. In Istanbul there is a little remnant of the Byzantine Empire in the neighborhood of the Phanar where his church and offices have been relegated. From there he has said, in part:
What can I say as a Christian clergyman and the Greek Patriarch in Istanbul? Instead of uniting a 1,500-year-old heritage we are being divided. I am saddened and shaken…we have survived for 17 centuries and we will stay here forever, as God wills.
It is not immediately clear how the Hagia Sophia’s change in status status will effect the monument. There is fear that its historic mosaics might be covered up again or destroyed. There is also concern that historians, conservationists, pilgrims, and tourists may be prohibited from entering or could have their access severely limited. Given the treatment of so many other churches by the Turks, these concerns are not unfounded.
Erdoğan’s move is obviously a provocative act meant to rally his Islamist-nationalist base. It is hurtful to see one of the greatest monuments of our Christian heritage used as a political ploy. It is upsetting to see any attempt made to erase the Christian heritage of a nation. Our hurt, however, should not lead to despondency. In Our Lord’s own day, the Pharisees tried to silence His disciples from singing His praises. The Lord responded to them by saying: “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.” (Lk 19:40).
Whatever happens to the Hagia Sophia no one can erase the Truth that inspired its construction. No matter what any government decree says, the stones of the Hagia Sophia will still cry out. All who gaze upon this wonder of human ingenuity will still know the motivation behind its construction—the desire to proclaim the imperishable greatness of Jesus Christ.
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