Today, We Mourn Hagia Sophia
By Claire Evans
07/24/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – A sword will pierce her heart, yet she ponders. Such is the legacy of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is a legacy re-encountered within the history of Hagia Sophia.
The ancient cathedral, the heart of Eastern Christianity, was pierced by the sword during the Ottoman era conquest. She was converted into a mosque, and Christians pondered their future.
Centuries later, the Ottoman Empire transformed into modern Turkey. Hagia Sophia was changed into a museum as a violent genocide targeting Christians swept across the country.
Today, Christians are forced to ponder an uncertain future. Christianity mourns as Hagia Sophia is once again converted into a mosque. Those Christian mosaics within the cathedral, many of which show Mary, are covered. The cathedral’s Christian history is hidden away. Like Mary, we ponder the future. And we mourn. “We ask that every Church toll its bells in lamentation on this day,” requested the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Encountering the mystery of Christ remains deeply rooted in Orthodoxy. Hagia Sophia’s design testifies to the mystical union between Christ’s bride (the church) and her encounter with God. Hagia Sophia is often discussed in terms of spiritual intimacy and union, by both Christians and Muslims. For whoever occupies Hagia Sophia, it is viewed as a marriage.
For this reason, the Greek Orthodox have asked that the Akathist Hymn is sung even as church bells toll in lamentation. Mourn the loss of Hagia Sophia, but also as the hymn suggests, “Rejoice, O Bride unwedded, the world’s salvation… At a loss and perplexed am I. As ordered therefore, thus do I shout to you: Rejoice, O Maiden who are full of grace!”
Such similar language of endearment is common vocabulary when speaking of Hagia Sophia. For example, Greek Patriarch Bartholomew remarked in the days’ prior that Hagia Sophia is the center “in which East and West embrace.”
This latest transformation of Hagia Sophia is nothing less than a new type of embrace, laden with fresh symbolism. Turkey has intentionally chosen today—the anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne—to formalize the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The treaty established under Ataturk a secular Turkey, a country that looks at a church and sees a museum. Today, Turkey looks past Lausanne towards its Ottoman past. But what in this history bodes well for the future?
“[Hagia Sophia] became a symbol of conquest,” said one Turkish Christian as she recounts the cathedral’s history to ICC. “I wonder what will come after the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. I can’t make sense of the cry of victory for some of the Islamic side. [They say] ‘we took your temple to the Christian world from you. We have triumphed against Ataturk.’”
Indeed, the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque is an achievement long looked towards by Turkey’s ruling party (AKP). Its reliance upon Islamic nationalism has only ostracized those who fall outside their specific belief system, isolating those of a different conscience.
“To me, Turkey is now becoming quite impatient against Christians and Christianity. [President Erdogan] seeks every opportunity to establish his own caliphate,” adds another Turkish Christian. “I think Hagia Sophia was just one of the small steps to do this. Hagia Sophia was used as a matter of revenge, and Christianity was completely ignored. This will not be the first (and it will) not be the end.”
Muslims have also expressed concern about the symbolism undergirding the decision of changing Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. One Muslim believer shared, “This is an indication of the weakness of AKP and Erdogan. One of the trump cards used in order not to lose the election at any cost. Little sounds began to sound: They speak of a caliphate. This situation has the benefit of it to Turkey for what we ask? The answer is nothing.”
“Unfortunately, Hagia Sophia, meaning Holy Wisdom, has been taken beyond the words of sacredness and wisdom in the process of religious hegemony. The conclusion I draw from this knowledge of history is to feel the suffering of Hagia Sophia,” adds a Muslim woman.
Such hegemony is further exacerbated as Hagia Sophia’s transformation restricts the cathedral’s accessibility. Many church leaders pointed out that at least as a museum, Hagia Sophia was accessible by both Christian and Muslim worshipers. But Christians are not welcome to worship within a mosque. Some Muslims have expressed parallel concerns regarding the cathedral’s accessibility.
A Muslim woman explains, “while Hagia Sophia was a museum, it was a place where women can go and travel very easily. But the question of how it will be for women after becoming a mosque raises my concern.”
“We know that there is a large area reserved for men in mosques, and they pray there in the front row. They walk in the courtyards of the mosque with the manner ‘this is my place,’” she continues. “However, women worship in a room or a small area of the mosque by hiding. For women who want to wonder at the history, texture, architecture, and visit Hagia Sophia, can they travel freely? This question scares me.”
Diversity is the strength of any country, yet Turkey has adopted an attitude of conquest that encourages uniformity. Hagia Sophia’s latest transformation symbolizes that Turkey’s future is married to its Ottoman past, a history filled with great injustices targeting those who did not conform. It is a transformation that carries with it a vocabulary signaling fresh injustices.
The Akathist Hymn sung today by churches mourning Hagia Sophia’s conversion includes the line “we your faithful inscribe to you the prize of victory as gratitude for being rescued from calamity.”
Amongst the sadness and anticipation of a more challenging future, there is hope and gratitude. “Rejoice, the only one who budded forth the unfading apple,” adds the hymn. The future may look more challenging, but there is hope. That even as Turkey fades back into an era of persecution, the church may yet still thrive.
Thus, we ponder as we mourn today’s loss of Hagia Sophia.