The church of Hagia Sophia was the preeminent monument of Christian architecture and an active church for almost a millennium until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the clergy and people were slaughtered as they celebrated their last Liturgy. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque for Muslim prayers until 1934, when the new secular leadership of the Turkish state declared it a museum. Hagia Sophia was preserved as a tourist site, and no prayers of any kind were allowed. However, earlier this year, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdogan, restarted Muslim prayers. Hagia Sophia became a mosque again.
For the current president of Turkey and his supporters, the meaning of this event is clear: the ascendancy, supremacy, and inevitable victory of Islam. For Orthodox Christians—and for all Christians who are aware of it—the event is a source of anguish. These two meanings are clear and incompatible.
“I belong to a small country,” said the great Greek poet George Seferis in his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1963. “It is small, but its tradition is immense.”
As wrangling over the word “tradition” has become an idle pastime, particularly on that domain of debauchery known as social media, Seferis’s thoughts warrant consideration, despite his unorthodox Orthodoxy. Tradition, for Seferis, has three elements: it is alive; it is universal, but only because it is particular; and it is, above all, liberating.
Introduced to the West in Henry Miller’s 1939 travelogue The Colossus of Maroussi, the poet and diplomat (whose real name was Giorgos Seferiades) was larger than life. Miller described him as “a wild boar which had broken its tusks in furious onslaughts born of love and ecstasy.” When Orthodox lay theologian Philip Sherrard first met Seferis in person, he wrote in his diary that he radiated “profoundly direct and simple human warmth and spontaneity.” The British poet and Jesuit priest Peter Levi wrote that Seferis “was the sun in the sky to all of us who lived in Greece.”
One must ask then, should sacred art be sacred? Protected from the accidents of history? Or all art? And who decides what is sacred? Or for that matter, what is art?
As we watched the Taliban destroy the Bamyan Buddhas of Afghanistan, and blow up the ancient African City of Palmyra, and as we now continue to watch zealots destroy the mosques and ancient tombs of Saints that are sacred to all the Abrahamic religions, who can say with certainty what qualifies as sacred or civilization’s patrimony beyond religious relevance? Violence against ideas has expressed itself through the physical destruction of objects of sacred traditions for thousands of years. Professor Erin L. Thompson observed in a June 24th article in the New York Times that we tend to destroy rather than protect cultural objects during times of transition. In fact destruction is the norm historically. Bronze statues were ripped from pedestals, melted down, recast to look like the winners and returned to the same pedestals. If there was neither time nor money at the end of a war, the victor’s head would be recast and attached to the losers body.
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.