This essay is published here on the occasion of the first prayers following Hagia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque, July 24, 2020.
It was spring 1964—a difficult year for the Orthodox Greek brothers of Constantinople, because of the well-known anti-Greek acts of the Turks, due to Cyprus. I was in the Theological Academy of Chalke (whose operation unfortunately has since been forbidden by the Turks). Great Lent had just started. In the Holy Trinity Monastery of Chalke, cantor Stanitsas chanted with his students: “Open for me the gates of repentance, O Life-Giver.” It was then that I experienced and understood Orthodox Byzantium: with all its grandeur it humbly repents in front of the Living and True God, as simply as washing in the morning or eating our daily bread.
I set out with a colleague and friend, a student of Theology in Chalke, to visit and worship at the “Aya Sophia,” as people called it in my country without knowing what it meant. For me it was the Great Church then. I used to hear about it, and it was something like a dream. When we entered the Hagia Sophia, I remembered St. Symeon the New Theologian: “If you have heard from someone about a city, its squares and its streets, the buildings and the rest of its beauty, and if you ever find yourself in this city, even if you recognize from what you have heard the streets and the city plan, you are still not sure it is the one you have heard so much about, until he himself tells you that this is the city he was talking about.” Of course, St. Symeon used this example to discuss the revelation of the Lord Himself to him and the confirmation of a true epiphany to him by his spiritual father, Symeon the Pious. When I entered the Hagia Sophia, I saw and realized that this is God’s Holy Wisdom. I was a hieromonk, but forced to be without a cassock, because it is forbidden in the city.
Upon entering the Church, I made the sign of the cross. The Turkish guard reacted strongly, but my friend explained to him in his language that I was a foreigner and did not know it was forbidden to make the sign of the cross in the Hagia Sophia. Crossing the doorsteps of the main church, in the nave, I realized, in some still unknown way, that the Hagia Sophia in its bright dimensions is heaven coming down to earth or rather landing at this very moment, and at the same time it is earth going up to heaven or rather taking off and becoming heaven at this very moment. I believe that this experience of the Hagia Sophia was granted to me the sinner by Him Who made the Heaven Earth and the Earth Heaven.
I later found in St. Maximus that “God’s Holy Church”—and of course St. Maximus had in mind primarily the Great Church of Christ, the Hagia Sophia—“bears the type and image of God, having energy in His imitation and type.” The same Saint also says, “God’s Holy Church is a type and image of the whole universe,” and also, “God’s Holy Church pictures man symbolically, and it is pictured by him as man … because God’s Holy Church is Man!”
Better, the Church of God, the Wisdom of God, is the God-man, as her holy founder and emperor, Justinian, would say. And he did say it in practice by building the Hagia Sophia. Because, in that which is of Christ, word becomes act, as the incarnation of the Divine Word became Christ’s realization, according to the Holy Fathers (St. Irenaeus); that is, the Divine Economy of the Holy Trinity, which Christ, “being one of the Holy Trinity,” according to Justinian’s hymn, “realized within Himself for us and for our salvation.” This Divine Economy of Christ, the incarnate Wisdom of God, the materialization of the pre-eternal Divine Light, which shone once and for all from Tabor, Justinian financed; that is, he built this Church, the Hagia Sophia, as testified and presented in the text by Charalambos Stathakis. And the Hagia Sophia has remained a model for all the churches of God, throughout the world and throughout the centuries.
A contemporary Serbian architect, Predrag Ristic (known in Greece as Agapios Christides), writes that “the best churches in Orthodox Serbia constitute a eulogy of the Temple of Temples, the Wisdom of Wisdoms, the Church of Churches, the Assembly of Assemblies—the Catholicon of Catholicons for the monks of Mount Athos—of the Holy Wisdom of God (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople, which is beyond all philosophies and philosophers, all architectures and architects, as an image and type of the Church = Ship of Christ. In it the Mystery of Christ, Who is the Joyful Light of the world and of eternity, becomes word and liturgy in the simple and clear language of the fishermen, in the way of the Cross and the Resurrection.” And Ristic, the master architect, concludes: “Blessed are they who have selected this Church-Ship, ‘the boat of Christ which will never sink,’ as St. John Chrysostom would preach from the ambo which still stands in front of Hagia Sophia today.”
History has not ended. It certainly continues as the history of the saving Economy of God; the history of Hagia Sophia continues, too. We Orthodox suffer from history (we are “the suffering earth” as the Apostolic Fathers would say), but we are not exhausted and do not become disappointed by history, and of course we do not get trapped in history, because we are freely besieged for the sake of the Reign of God. We remain in Freedom, “in which we were freed,” by Jesus Christ Who Is and Was and Is to Come, the Alpha and the Omega of the Seven Lamps (= Churches) of the Apocalypse; that is, the Great Church of Christ, the New Zion, the earthly-heavenly New Jerusalem. And the “mystery in the world,” of the Church of the Living God, is still being built.
The historical drama and the traditional liturgy of the Hagia Sophia will go on until the Coming of Christ. We experience it when we visit it and when its light shines in our heart. The Hagia Sophia remains “the depiction in space, with light transfigured by matter, of the God-man Jesus Christ.”
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.