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Hagia Sophia: The violation of a symbol by the Sec-Gen for Public Diplomacy, Religious & Consular Affairs

 

 

Hagia Sophia:
The violation of a symbol

 

By Constantinos Alexandris

 

“It is quite clear that no logical or plausible excuse could justify the violation of a symbol – because this is exactly what the decision for the conversion of Hagia Sophia amounts to. This is not just contempt for history or UNESCO or an international treaty: it is a violation.

Hagia Sophia is not just any church, it is a symbol. It is an emblem of a long historical period, of an entire civilization… and turning it into a mosque is an attack on this civilization. But more importantly, it is also an attack against what the modern world now considers its achievements, such as respect for diversity.”

 

Flipping through an album of travel photos the other day; I recalled lighting a candle at the Taj Mahal a few years after the first Christian Indian Prime Minister decided to grant the temple to the local Church. I admired once again the handmade rugs adorning the floor of the Notre Dame de Paris Mosque, which the French Government had handed over to the Muslim community in order to save it from decay, as the declining number of Christians attending the service could not cover its maintenance costs. And there was that photo with the stunning minarets of St. Peter’s Mosque at the Vatican that the Muslim local Governor of the former city-state decided to add to the building to structurally reinforce it as it was in danger of collapsing! Oh, and that one there, with the Buddhist monks who in recent years have settled at the Buddhist Monastery of Masjid Al-Haram, the former Grand Mosque in Mecca, which following that terrible pandemic no longer accepted Muslim pilgrims…

And if all this sounds unrealistic or taken straight out from a science fiction script, then think again, because something along those lines happened a few days ago when the Erdogan Government decided to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque, claiming that as such it will not only be preserved, but will also be better protected. After all, as some Turkish officials have pointed out, this was precisely what their Ottoman ancestors had also done, “saving” the magnificent Church from “withering away” (according to the same officials). When, you may ask, did this happen? Well, a mere 6 centuries ago – quite recently in other words! As if the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and an unprecedented scientific and technological revolution have not taken place in between. But what am I saying? Aren’t they all fraudulent Judeo-Christian conspiracies from which modern Muslim Turkey must “cleanse” itself? The questions are purely rhetorical…

It is quite clear that no logical or plausible excuse could justify the violation of a symbol – because this is exactly what the decision for the conversion of Hagia Sophia amounts to. This is not just contempt for history or UNESCO or an international treaty: it is a violation. Hagia Sophia is not just any church, it is a symbol. It is an emblem of a long historical period, of an entire civilization, just like the Taj Mahal, St. Peter’s, the Parthenon, the Masjid Al-Haram, the Rumi Mausoleum; and turning it into a mosque is an attack on this civilization. But more importantly, it is also an attack against what the modern world now considers its achievements, such as respect for diversity.

 

In a nutshell, it is obviously a sovereign decision by the Turkish leadership to decide which direction it wants the country to take. But it is also a basic obligation of all others to protect ourselves from policies and actions that threaten to take us back to the distant past.

 

What is the purpose of all this? That the Erdogan Government confirms, after 6 long centuries, the fall of Constantinople? Does it really feel it needs to? Or to demonstrate perhaps the Islamic domination of the 1,000-year-old Christian Eastern Roman Empire? Both incentives lead to a dangerous slippery slope. They add fuel to the fire of nationalism and religious fundamentalism. Is this what the Turkish Government needs right now? Does it need to play to the gallery of those who fantasise about new conquests and throwing enemies into the sea? Or of those who envision the flag of Islam flying in Rome, Cordoba, Vienna and elsewhere? Is this the Turkey it visualises, or the Islam it aspires to lead?

In any case, to every man according to his deeds. Let us bear in mind, however, that symbols, even if damaged, always find ways to retain their shine and magic. If a Greek Government in the future decided to turn the Parthenon into a Christian Church, one can be sure that it would not be the Parthenon that would be ridiculed…

In a nutshell, it is obviously a sovereign decision by the Turkish leadership to decide which direction it wants the country to take. But it is also a basic obligation of all others to protect ourselves from policies and actions that threaten to take us back to the distant past.

 

Constantinos Alexandris is the Secretary-General for Public Diplomacy,
Religious and Consular Affairs of the Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Also published in Euractiv.com

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AGIA SOPHIA INTERESTING FACTS

 

 

Once the largest cathedral in the world, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, has stood for more than 1,500 years along the banks of the Bosporus Strait and has housed three religious groups. It is one of the most important Byzantine structures ever built. Of great architectural beauty and an important monument both for the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, it was once a church, later a mosque and then a museum until the recent directive by the Turkish authorities. It holds historical significance as a culminating feature of the Christian era Roman Empire and stands as a monument to artistic and architectural achievement.

Over the centuries, the mystical city of Istanbul (Constantinople) has hosted many civilizations, of which the Byzantium and Ottoman Empires were the most famous. The city today carries the characteristics of these two different cultures and surely Hagia Sophia is a perfect synthesis where one can observe both Ottoman and Byzantium effects under one great dome.

The Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had been a museum since 1934. It was a Christian Church, the Byzantine Empire’s most important one, from the 6th to the 15th Centuries, and a Mosque from 1453. It is one of the most visited museums in Turkey, attracting almost 3.3 million visitors annually. According to data released by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Hagia Sophia was Turkey’s most visited tourist attraction in 2015 and 2019.

  1. THE CHURCH WAS TWICE DESTROYED BY RIOTS.

First built in Constantinople in 360 CE and dedicated by the Roman Emperor Constantius II (son of Constantine, the founder of Constantinople), the initial, wood-constructed Hagia Sophia burned during a series of riots in 404 CE. In 415 CE, Emperor Theodosius II ordered the church rebuilt, but the Nika Revolt in 532 CE caused widespread death and destruction in the city and the church was wiped out a second time.

 

  1. THE FIRST GREAT BYZANTINE RULER ORDERED ITS RECONSTRUCTION.

Located in the Eastern Roman Empire region known as Byzantium, Constantinople was ruled for 38 years by the Emperor Justinian, starting in 527 CE. Five years after the Nika Revolt and the church’s destruction, Justinian inaugurated the newly rebuilt Hagia Sophia, the most important religious structure in his empire, on December 27, 537 CE.

 

  1. THE CHURCH HAS GONE BY SEVERAL NAMES.

Initially called the Great Church (Megale Ekklesia in Greek, Magna Ecclesia in Latin) because of its immense size, the second incarnation of the church came to be known by the name Hagia Sophia around 430 CE. Its Greek meaning, “Holy Wisdom,” remained after the church was rebuilt a century later. After conquest by the Ottomans it was called Ayasofya, and today it is the Ayasofya Müzesi.

 

  1. THE ORIGINAL DOME WAS REPLACED AFTER AN EARTHQUAKE IN 558 CE.

Soaring 160 feet high, with a diameter of 131 feet, the grand feature of the Hagia Sophia was its large central dome. The dome and the church were designed by architects Anthemios of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletos, but unlike the dome of the Pantheon, which has never faltered, an earthquake in 558 CE caused the Hagia Sophia’s dome to collapse. It was rebuilt to a height of 182 feet, and the walls were reinforced in 562 CE. The dome’s weight is supported by a series of smaller domes, arcades and four large arches.

 

  1. ONE OF THE SEVEN ANCIENT WONDERS WAS USED IN THE CHURCH’S CONSTRUCTION.

To fortify (and beautify) the interior of the church, columns from the long-abandoned and destroyed Temple of Artemis in Ephesus were used for the Hagia Sophia. Additional building materials may also have come from ancient sites in Baalbeck and Pergamom.

 

  1. IT’S A GREAT EXAMPLE OF BYZANTINE ART AND ARCHITECTURE.

Byzantium nurtured a centuries-long tradition of art, architecture, knowledge, theology, and literature in a style that fused Greek, Roman, and other Eastern traditions. Long after the decline of the Roman Empire from which it sprang, the Byzantine ruler Justinian spearheaded a series of urban reconstruction projects following the Nika Revolt and started with the Hagia Sophia. The new cathedral included the massive dome atop a rectangular basilica, abundant mosaics that covered nearly every surface, stone inlays, columns and pillars of marble, bronze doors, a marble door, a large cross at the dome’s apex, and a square area on the floor of the nave, paved in marble, called the omphalion, a place where emperors were crowned.

 

  1. ICONOCLASM LED TO THE REMOVAL OF MANY PIECES OF ART

Meaning “image breaking” or “the smashing of images,” the period of iconoclasm (from about 726-787 CE and 815-843 CE) raged when the state banned the production or use of religious images, leaving the cross as the only acceptable icon. Many mosaics and paintings from the Hagia Sophia were destroyed, taken away, or plastered over.

 

  1. A 90-YEAR-OLD, BLIND VENETIAN ONCE CAPTURED HAGIA SOPHIA.

During the Fourth Crusade in 1203 CE, Alexius IV managed to convince the Crusaders to help him take the throne of the Byzantine Empire in exchange for a series of promises and rewards. But just months later, he was murdered in a palace coup. The powerful Doge Enrico Dandolo, the chief magistrate of the Republic of Venice who was over 90 years old and blind, led the Latin Christians on a siege of Constantinople. The city and the church were sacked and desecrated, many golden mosaics were taken back to Italy and Dandolo was buried at Hagia Sophia after his death in 1205 CE.

 

  1. THE CHURCH BECAME A MOSQUE FOR 500 YEARS.

Centuries of sackings, conquests, sieges, raids, and crusades came to an end in 1453 CE with the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, led first by Sultan Murad II and then his successor, Mehmed II. The city was renamed Istanbul, the church was looted for treasures and Mehmed called for a restoration of the 900-year-old building and its conversion into a mosque.

 

  1. A MULTITUDE OF ISLAMIC FEATURES WERE ADDED TO THE BUILDING.

To use the space as a mosque, the rulers ordered that a mihrab (prayer niche), minbar (pulpit), and a fountain for ablutions be added to the Hagia Sophia. A succession of minarets was added to the exterior, and a school, kitchen, library, mausoleums, and sultan’s lodge joined the site over the centuries.

 

  1. THE SULTAN PROTECTED CHRISTIAN MOSAICS.

Instead of destroying the numerous frescoes and mosaics on the Hagia Sophia walls, Mehmed II ordered they be whitewashed in plaster and covered in Islamic designs and calligraphy. Many were later uncovered, documented, or restored by the Swiss-Italian architects Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati.

 

  1. BELIEVERS SAY THE ‘WEEPING COLUMN’ HAS HEALING POWERS.

Also called the “sweating column,” the “wishing column,” and the “perspiring column,” the weeping column stands in the northwest portion of the church and is one of 107 columns in the building. The pillar is partly covered in bronze, with a hole in the middle, and it is damp to the touch. The alleged blessing of St. Gregory has led many to rub the column in search of divine healing.

 

  1. THE FOUNDER OF MODERN TURKEY TURNED IT INTO A MUSEUM.

Former army officer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern Turkey and served as its first president from 1923 to 1938. In 1934, after banning many Islamic customs and Westernising the country, Atatürk and the Turkish government secularised the former cathedral and mosque and converted it into a museum.

 

  • Sophia means Wisdom in the Greek Language. When we translate the full name of Hagia Sophia to English it is Shrine of The Holy of God.
  • Hagia Sophia was dedicated to Logos who was the second person in the Holy Trinity, in December 25th.
  • There were two more Churches accepted as Churches of Holy Wisdom, but only Hagia Sophia was not destroyed.
  • The altar, bells, sacrificial vessels and iconostasis were all removed when the church was converted into a mosque.
  • When Hagia Sophia was a church, a 50 foot silver iconostasis decorated the inside, now it is on display in the museum.
  • Only the Patheon in Rome has a slightly bigger dome than the dome of Hagia Sophia.
  • The Eastern Orthodox Church has declared Hagia Sophia for over 1,000 years as an important place.
  • The Blue Mosque and the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul were designed using the Hagia Sophia as inspiration.
  • Hagia Sophia, as a museum, has both Christian and Islamic influences and features today.
  • Hagia Sophia has 40 windows in the area where worshipers sit and it is famous for the reflecting mystical light.
  • When the dome of Hagia Sophia was placed, walls began to lean outward because of the weight. Then walls to support to dome were built.
  • A mathematician, a scientist and a physicist designed the Hagia Sophia.
  • Hagia Sophia is visible from great distances because of its grandness.
  • The stone cannonballs, which were used by Mehmet the Conqueror, are on display near the entrance of Hagia Sophia.
  • Hagia Sophia is one of the most important buildings in Istanbul and is in need of some restoration and repairs.
  • Hagia Sophia was constructed over a fault line and earthquake can tear the structure down. It must be strengthened with some works.
  • Some repairs in Hagia Sophia are on-going today, but definitely needs more financing.

 

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