Like all Byzantine art historians, I am concerned about the conversion this year of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Not being able to travel because of the pandemic, I only know about the current state of the building from images on the internet and from friends in Istanbul, especially David Hendrix, who has supplied the above image. The church’s great mosaics have been covered, so as not to offend Muslims at prayer times. Two are in the conch of the apse at the rear, the Theotokos was formerly seen in the center and a breath-taking beautiful angel at the right.
The great Byzantine floor of the nave has been covered with carpets, thus obscuring what the Greek sources call the “rivers,” the dark green marble bands that across the width of the nave. They once governed liturgical processions just as the chalk marks on the stage instruct the corps de ballet where to stand. Seeing those marble bands in the museum of Hagia Sophia, I imagined the grand processions of patriarch, bishops, priests, deacon, and choir members that once extended across the nave before all would exit to continue processing elsewhere in Constantinople. I have learned about the rivers and their use in the liturgy from scholars of architecture and liturgy. Others have done more to imagine the church during the Middle Ages. Here I want to cite the work of Bissera Pentcheva. With colleagues, she has scientifically reconstructed the space’s long reverberations. Using acoustic characteristics of the building that they discovered, the Cappella Romana has recorded chants the Feast of the Holy Cross, making it sound as if were there in Constantinople. As I type this, I am listening to that recording and am transported back to Constantinople.
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.