Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia: Museum or Mosque?

I once spent eight days in Istanbul, an incredibly fascinating city! One of the things I liked to do while I was there was stroll from my hotel over to nearby Sultanahmet Park in the early evening, sit down on a park bench facing Istanbul’s renowned Hagia Sofia, and as daylight faded, reflect–on the beauty of the ancient basilica, on the many changes that have occurred in the region since Turkey was known as ‘Asia Minor’ and Istanbul was called ‘Constantinople’, on life in general. (Some people don’t find the rusty-pink exterior of the Hagia Sophia beautiful, but I do.)  Like millions of other visitors to the city, I had made a trip to Istanbul’s Hagia Sofia, now the Ayasofya museum, a top priority and had explored its awesome interior shortly after arriving. Christendom’s most glorious church for over one thousand years didn’t disappoint. Its builder, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, had wanted to erect a church that would surpass Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.  I think he must have come close.


Although my trip to Istanbul took place a mere seven and a half years ago, the Turkey I visited is not the Turkey that exists today. Whether future tourists will experience the same Hagia Sophia  I and millions of others have in the past is now uncertain.  A commission of the Turkish Parliament recently accepted a citizen’s petition from one Talib Bozkurt to have the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya Museum, reopened as a mosque.  The petition is currently under consideration.

One tends to forget that Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) was a Christian city for 1123 years. The building known as the Hagia Sophia (in Greek), Sancta Sophia (in Latin), and Holy Wisdom (in English) was constructed as a place of Christian worship. The edifice we see today is actually the third basilica built at this location.  The first basilica burned down in 360 and the second was destroyed in the riots of 532.  When the third basilica, Justinian’s basilica, was completed in 537, it was acknowledged as the most impressive structure in the world. In 1453, in what must have been a “9.11” event for fifteenth-century Christians, Mehmet II and his Muslim forces captured Constantinople and turned Christendom’s most glorious church into a mosque.

And thus it remained for 481 years. But things changed with the arrival on the scene of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, “Father of the Turks,” creator of modern Turkey.  In 1922, the Ottoman Sultanate was abolished and a year later Turkey became a secular republic with Atatürk as its first president.  Atatürk set about modernizing and secularizing Turkey through a program of revolutionary social and political reforms.  The emancipation of women, the closing of Islamic courts and replacement of shariah with secular civil codes, the closing of the madrassas, the introduction of Western dress, the replacement of Arabic script with the Latin alphabet:  these were some of the Westernizing transformations wrought by Atatürk. Turkey’s reformer also encouraged the visual arts, banned, limited, or suppressed under his Islamic predecessors.  In 1849, the Sultan Abdülmecid, for example, had ordered the splendid mosaics in the Hagia Sophia’s interior to be covered over with white plaster. Atatürk, in contrast, believed that the mosaics should be revealed and ordered their restoration, a long, arduous, and costly enterprise.  Atatürk regarded the Hagia Sophia as a monument to all civilizations and therefore meant to be accessible to all and sundry, not just to Muslims. To this end, he signed an order in 1934 making the Hagia Sophia a museum, the Ayasofya Museum.

Unfortunately, the days of the Hagia Sophia as a museum may be numbered. Since Bozkurt’s citizen petition, fifteen other petitions have been submitted. It’s hard not to believe that the current Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan himself supports such a move, having stated back in the 1990s that “Ayasofya should be opened to Muslim prayers.”  Atatürk had prohibited public prayer in the Ayasofya in 1934.

Seeing Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia reconsecrated as a mosque is not unthinkable.  The fate of the historic Hagia Sofia in Nicea (now Iznik, Turkey)–a scaled-down version of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul–is instructive.  The Hagia Sophia in Iznik also holds great significance for Christians.  It was in this location that the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicea, was held in 325.  And it was in this very basilica that the bishops of the Eastern Roman Empire gathered to decide the Iconoclast controversy in 787. Despite its historical significance for Christians, in November 2011 the ancient basilica was declared a mosque.  And just last year, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc proposed reconsecrating as a mosque the Hagia Sofia church in the city of Trabzon on the Black Sea–like the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul,  currently a museum.  Interestingly enough, not even the Muslim leaders of Trabzon are in favour of Arinc’s proposed change.


Mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator Flanked by the Empress Zoë and Constantine IX Monomachus

Turkey is currently undergoing re-Islamization. With the Muslim prohibition against depiction of the human body, the ancient mosaics of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia like the one above would again be in jeopardy, were the museum to become a mosque once more.  The spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, has spoken out against the proposed return of the Hagia Sophia to mosque status. He wants the Ayasofya to remain a museum.  Not just Eastern Orthodox Christians but Christians everywhere should lend the Patriarch their support.  I would like to think that this article is part of that support.


The Story of Esther: Déjà Vu All Over Again

In nine days time the Jewish community will celebrate the festival of Purim.  As part of the festivities, the Book of Esther will be read in synagogues worldwide. The Book of Esther is a curious one, unlike any other book in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament canon.  The name of God appears nowhere on the pages, the hero of the story is a woman, and the action takes place in the winter palace of a Persian king.

Not having read the Book of Esther in quite a while, I had forgotten what a captivating story it is. The Book of Esther has been described as a “gem of a little story,” and rightly so.  The story goes roughly thus:  King Ahasuerus, probably Xerxes I (who reigned from 486-465 BC and is best known for his failed attempt to invade Greece), gives a magnificent banquet for his nobles and officials.  In high spirits from all the wine he has been drinking, Xerxes commands his eunuchs to bring his beautiful queen, Vashti, to the banquet hall so he can show her off to his guests.  She refuses to come.  (We’re never told why she doesn’t come.) An enraged Xerxes, acting on the advice of his wise men, decrees that Vashti is never again to enter his presence and that her position is to be given to another. 

When the fairest young virgins in the land are brought to the king’s harem for his assessment, it is Esther, “beautiful in form and features,” who wins the king’s favour and replaces Vashti as queen. An orphan, Esther has been raised by her cousin Mordecai as his own daughter.  Mordecai has forbidden his charge to reveal her Jewish identity. Xerxes is thus unaware that his new queen is a Jew. 



Some time after this, Xerxes elevates Haman, son of Hammedatha the Agagite, to the highest position among his nobility, and orders all others to kneel down and pay Haman honour.  Mordecai refuses. When Mordecai’s Jewish identity is revealed to Haman, he scorns the idea of killing only Mordecai and looks for a way to annihilate all the Jews within the Persian Empire.  A pur, ‘lot’ (a four-sided die), is cast in Haman’s presence to determine the day to carry out his nefarious plan. The date selected is the 13th day of the 12th month of Adar.  Haman asks that a decree be issued in the king’s name to have all the Jews in the land–young and old, women and children–destroyed on the 13th of Adar and all their goods plundered. Xerxes consents.

A distraught Mordecai urges Esther to go to the king to petition him to spare her people. To go into the presence of the Persian king unsummoned could result in death, even for a queen, but Esther courageously agrees to intervene. When the king sees Esther standing in the royal court, he is pleased with her and extends his golden scepter to her, thus indicating that she may safely approach.  When Esther reveals what Haman has in mind, Xerxes understands that he has in fact sentenced his own wife to death along with all her people.  Enraged, he orders Haman to be hanged on the very gallows that Haman had had constructed for Mordecai’s execution.  Unable by law to overturn Haman’s earlier genocidal decree, Xerxes orders Mordecai to write another decree in the king’s name, granting the Jews the right to arm themselves and resist their attackers.  When the 13th of Adar arrives, the Jews strike down all their enemies. To celebrate their great victory, Mordecai sends letter to all the Jews throughout the Persian Empire commanding them to celebrate annually the 14th and 15th days of the month of Adar with feasting and joy, with gift giving to one another and to the poor.  The two days of celebration are to be known as Purim, a name derived from the lots, or dice, rolled by Haman to determine on what day the Jews would die.

The Book of Esther with its inspiring tale of Jewish triumph over Haman and his genocidal scheme has been read largely as an historical narrative. Some question such a reading, however, and see the story more as a piece of historical fiction. Only King Ahasuerus appears to be connected to an actual historical figure, namely, Xerxes I. Were Esther, Mordecai, and Haman, then, mere fictional creations?  I would say not, particularly in the case of Haman.  If only Haman were a fictional character!  Haman was all-too-human–and his evil-minded progeny lives on.  All one has to do is listen to the threatening rants of the current President of Iran (formerly known as Persia) to hear echoes of Haman.  Some of the Iranian President’s most recent statements are: “Any freedom lover and justice seeker in the world must do its best for the annihilation of the Zionist regime [the Jewish state]….” Again, “The ultimate objective of world forces must be the annihilation of the Zionist regime.” And again, “The Zionists are goners and the world will be freed from their existence.” Of the world’s 13.75 million Jews, 43% live in Israel.  The threat to the Jews living in Israel today is every bit as dire as it was to the Jews in Esther’s time.

When Mordecai urges Esther to intervene on behalf of her people, he expresses the confidence that relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from elsewhere, should she fail to act.  In a book devoid of any mention of God, such confidence on Mordecai’s part can only derive from a belief that God in His sovereignty will intervene to fulfill his promises to His people, in some way or another.  But Esther does intervene on behalf of her people, at great personal risk to herself.  And it is this combination of Divine Sovereignty and individual responsibility that overcomes Haman and his wicked plan.  The Book of Esther is a book that should both comfort–and challenge–those who read it.      



Erasing History: Cultural Theft, Cultural Vandalism

The burning of medieval Malian manuscripts and demolition of Sufi shrines by Islamists in recent days has generated outrage around the world.  The sheer scale of the vandalism, with its utter disregard for Mali’s cultural heritage, has caught the world’s attention to a degree not seen since the blowing up of the Buddha statues in Bamian, Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001.  But these are merely two glaring examples of an insidious, ongoing practice taking place in other parts of the world, for the most part unnoted and unremarked upon by the international community. 

It was on a trip to the eastern Mediterranean island of Cyprus three and a half years ago that I encountered first hand the effects of cultural theft.  One of the “must-see” items on my list of places to visit was the Byzantine Museum and Art Galleries in Nicosia which houses more than 150 priceless icons, some ancient, others more modern.   Visiting the Museum and viewing the icons was, for me, a truly awesome experience!  The earliest icon I saw was dated to the 900s.  The beauty of the religious art pieces defies description.   

There was one wing of the museum which evoked a different emotional response, however.  This was a room which contained no icons or other artworks, only photographs:  photographs of art treasures stripped from the walls of Greek Orthodox churches in the northern part of the island. The occupation of northern Cyprus by the Turks since 1974 has had a deleterious effect on Cyprus’ Christian heritage. Churches in the Turkish-occupied north half of the island have been robbed of their icons, frescoes, mosaics, and other art objects by those looking to profit by selling these treasures to private collectors.  One of the worst cases involved the stripping of 6th century wall mosaics from the Church of Panagia Kanakaria. 

Some of the stolen art pieces have been tracked down, and repatriated to Greek Cyprus.  For instance, a Turk living in Munich, Germany was found to have in his possession religious art “loot” from fifty churches in Turkish-occupied Cyprus.  Repatriation of art work has proven to be a long process, however, due to the courts but, thankfully, there have been some success stories like the one below.





This mosaic of Saint Matthew the Evangelist (525-530), depicted on a postcard which I bought at the Museum, is one of the success stories.  This ancient mosaic was repatriated to Greek Cyprus from Germany in 1991.



Burning medieval manuscripts, blowing up statues, stealing mosaics:  These are all acts readily identifiable as cultural theft and cultural vandalism, acts leading inevitably to the loss of a people’s cultural history.  But there are other actions just as insidious, yet which seem to “fly below the radar screen,” unrecognized by most people for what they are.  Some artifacts of cultural history, for instance, have simply been appropriated and renamed.  Take Rachel’s Dome, located on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem. For over 1700 years, Rachel’s Dome, the grave site of the Jewish matriarch who died giving birth to her son Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-20), was recognized as an exclusively Jewish site, even by Palestine’s Ottoman rulers.  Two years ago, UNESCO declared Rachel’s Dome to be the ‘Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque’, despite the fact that the site was never a mosque. It all began in 1996 when the Muslim religious authorities in the area stopped referring to the grave site as Rachel’s Dome and instead began calling it ‘the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque’.  Bilal ibn Rabah was a black Ethiopian slave who served Muhammed as his first muezzin, the first person to be in charge of calling Muslims to pray five times a day.  Bowing to Muslim sensibilities regarding the grave site, UNESCO designated the site a mosque on 21 October 2010.   

Sometimes cultural theft takes the form of appropriation, at other times, denial.  In 2000 at the Camp David Summit, Yasser Arafat told President Bill Clinton that the Jewish Temple was not located in Jerusalem, but in Nablus.  Two years later, Arafat claimed Solomon’s Temple was located nowhere in Palestine; it had existed in Yemen.  Arafat’s successor has continued this strategy of denial, claiming that there has never been a Jewish presence or Jewish history in Jerusalem.

Why do we in the West feel outrage at the burning of Mali’s ancient manuscripts, and rightly so, yet remain unmoved by the theft of Byzantine art or the appropriation of Jewish sites?  Could it be because these stories of cultural theft never make headlines?  Or could it be that we really don’t place much value on our Judeo-Christian heritage?  Maybe it’s both.