When on July 20, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey paid a surprise visit to the Hagia Sophia to inspect the work of covering Christian icons in time for its reconversion into a mosque, he must have felt something akin to what the Emperor Justinian had felt in the 6th century. Having rebuilt the Hagia Sophia to what it appears now more or less, Justinian boasted to himself: “Solomon, I have surpassed you.”
Transposed to the new century, the remark must have been adapted by Erdogan to his own purposes: “Kemal Attaturk, I have surpassed you.”
More than 500 years after its capture from Byzantine Christians by Ottoman Muslims, the Hagia Sophia remains a war spoil and trophy in the war of civilizations.
Last July 25, Erdogan joined the first Muslim prayers ever to be said again in the Hagia Sophia, which had been converted back into a mosque after 85 years of being a museum.
The date was auspicious: It was the 97th anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, in which Turkey and the Allied powers defined the borders of modern Turkey, which gave up its claim to several territories belonging to the old Ottoman empire.The treaty led to the creation of the Republic of Turkey and the election of Attaturk as president.
Reform-minded, Attaturk went on to refashion Turkey from its decrepit Ottoman empire past into a modern secular state. He abolished the Caliphate and closed down Sufi mystical establishments, tekke Islamic schools and dervish lodges. He instituted free and compulsory public education.
The abolition of the Caliphate and his cultural reforms enraged the Islamists, Ottoman old-timers and pan-Turkic romanticists. Erdogan’s family is said to have come from a long line of Islamist critics of Attaturk; they viewed his secular reforms as a humiliating surrender to western imposition.
Perhaps the most radical embodiment of Attaturk’s cultural reform was the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum. The Islamist poet Necip Fazil Kisakurek articulated the most vituperative view against Attaturk’s reforms when in a conference in 1965 right at the Hagia Sophia, he said the decision to convert the structure into a museum “put the Turks’ essential spirit inside a museum.” In short, the conversion fossilized the Turkish soul. It emasculated the Turkish nation.
Erdogan had initially defended the reconversion as Turkey’s practice of “sovereignty.” But at the finish of Friday’s Islamic prayers, he called the reconversion “a liberation from slavery.”
“This unity, this solidarity which is ours is the expression of the liberation of Saint Sophia from the chains of slavery,” he said. “These chains have been eliminated and thrown away.”
The church was originally constructed in basilical form with lumber roof during the reign of Constantine (272-337), who became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity. Burned in a rebelllion in the early 5th century, it was rebuilt but was destroyed again by fire during the Nika uprising in the 6th century. The Emperor Justinian, famous for the Justinian Code which systematized Roman law and Latin jurisprudence, rebuilt it to the Unesco World Heritage landmark it is now.
According to the Byzantine historian Prokopius, Justinian had wanted a magnificent building so he ordered eight columns of red porphyry from the Temple of Diana in Ephesus. Other marbles from classical antiquity were brought in from all the corners of the empire. Ten thousand masons with 10,000 apprentices worked round the clock to finish the building in record time. The construction started in 1532 and was finished nearly six years later. The church was consecrated by the emperor himself on Dec. 27, 1537. Justinian rightly felt like Solomon after building the Temple of Jerusalem.
The building conformed to its original basilical plan during Constantine’s time. The main floor is rectangular, 100 meters in length and 70 meters in width. Four large piers separate the central space from the side aisles. Overall there are 107 columns.
The central dome is 55.6 meters or 182 feet in height. Due to renovations across the centuries, it has become elliptical. Its 40 lobes are separated by black ribs and pierced by brick ribs. Because Istanbul is near a fault time, buttresses were later built to support the building.
It is the Byzantine mosaics of course that are the most important aesthetic and historic elements inside the Hagia Sophia. According to archeologist Ilhan Aksit, the fine mosaics were of gold, silver, glass, stone, marble, limestone, granite and terra-cotta tesserae.
When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, they plastered the precious Byzantine mosaic icons because of the Islamic belief against graven images. The icons were restored under Attaturk who had converted the mosque into a museum. Attaturk’s American friend Thomas Whittemore, a specialist in the conservation of Byzantine art and architecture, did the restoration which uncovered the precious treasures that had been hidden for 500 years.
Some of the more notable mosaics would be the icon of the enthroned Madonna holding the Child Jesus located in the apse of the semidome, said to date back to the 9th century; and the Deesis mosaic, the tripartite icon showing Christ the Pantocrator (or Christ in Majesty) carrying the judgment book as he is flanked by the Blessed Mother and Saint John the Baptist in attitudes of supplication in behalf of humanity (“deesis” means prayer and supplication).
War of civilizations
In converting the structure into a museum, Attaturk said he would like “to offer the Hagia Sophia as a gift to humanity.” The announcement of the reversion predictably triggered a global outcry. It met with condemnation from western governments, with Luxembourg foreign minister Jean Asselborn calling it “a strike against civilization.” Greek, Armenian, Russian Orthodox leaders expressed their regret while Pope Francis said he was “very distressed.”
Church bells around Greece pealed at midday on Friday during Islamic prayers at Hagia Sophia. Orthodox flags flew at half-mast to protest what the head of the Church of Greece, Archbishop Ieronymos, has called an “unholy act of defiling” of the former cathedral.
“(Today) is a day of mourning for all of . . . Christianity,” Ieronymos said.
Diyanet, Ankara’s religious authority, said the icons would not be plastered, merely covered, and that no nail would be hammered to damage the images. It added that the Christian icons were “not an obstacle to the validity of the (Muslim) prayers.” “Our goal is to avoid harming the frescoes, icons and the historic architecture of the edifice,” Erdogan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said.
Diyanet said the building would continue to be open to all visitors outside the hours given over to Muslim prayer.
In his memoir, “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” Nobel laureate Orhan Pahmuk betrays the confusion of a modern-day Turk in a country and civilization that’s been a historic battleground between East and West, Islam and Christianity, the traditional and the modern.
For a largely nostalgic book about Istanbul, there’s no mention of the city’s most famous historic landmark: the Hagia Sophia. The city’s Christian origins as Constantinople are merely referred to when Pahmuk discusses his marriage to a woman whose mother was Orthodox, which portentously enough would end in divorce:
“You can tell whether you’re standing in the East or in the West, just by the way people refer to certain historical events. For Westerners, May 29, 1543 is the Fall of Constantinople, which for Easterners, is the Conquest of Istanbul. Years later, when my wife was studying at Columbia University, she used the word ‘conquest’ in an exam and her American professor accused her of ‘nationalism.’ In fact, she’s used the word only because of having been taught to use it as a Turkish lycée student: because her mother was of Russian extraction, it could be said her sympathies were more with the Orthodox Christians. Or perhaps she saw it neither as a ‘fall’ or ‘conquest’ and felt more like an unlucky hostage caught between two worlds that offered no choice but to be Muslim or Christian.”
The Hagia Sophia, literally “Divine Wisdom,” remains a hostage caught between two warring worlds, a prize to be snatched by dubious victors in the conflict of civilisations. It remains a hostage to history—what William Butler Yeats in his famous “Byzantium” poem calls, ironically in a more rarefied, spiritual context, “of what is past, or passing or to come.” INQ