Hagia Sophia

Trip Start Oct 08, 2012
Trip End Nov 29, 2012

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Sunday, November 25, 2012

Today we made a long awaited visit to Hagia Sophia. As you may be aware Hagia Sophia (or the Basilica of St Sophia as it was first known) was built by the Emperor Constantine when he founded Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 330 AD. Constantinople (modern Turkish: İstanbul) was the capital city of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, the Latin and the Ottoman Empires. It was built on the site of ancient Byzantium as the new capital of the Roman Empire. In the 1100's the city was the largest and wealthiest European city of the Middle Ages. Eventually, the empire of Christian Eastern Orthdoxy in the east was reduced to just the capital and its environs, falling to the Muslims in the historic battle of 1453. Hagia Sophia was Islamised and the Christian frescoes were whitewashed and plastered over. After Mustapha Kemal Attaturk became president of Turkey and the country became a secular state it was decided in 1934 at his instigation that Hagia Sophia should become a museum. I suspect that Attaturk, who was a brilliant man, realised turning it into a Museum would reduce tensions between Christians and Muslims. I wonder how Muslims would react if their most significant mosque in the world was taken over and turned into a place of worship for another major world religion. Hagia Sophia is a massive structure and breathtakingly stunning, reflecting both its Christian origins and Islamisation. The main section of the church contains a number of huge wooden discs with Islamic writing, as does the central dome in the roof. Today there seemed to be an enormous cross-section of people visiting it, young and old, Muslim and Christian. Very little of the original building remains, except some marble columns and other fragments. I found myself wondering what Hagia Sophia would have looked like if it hadn't been conquered by Islam. It would have a very different feel. To be honest it felt like a strange mix of Christian and Muslim, without it being distinctively one or the other. Quite a deal of superstition attaches to the church, as with most churches in Europe. There was a marble column that tourists were putting their thumb into in the hope that it would bring them good luck. And having a photo taken as they did it, presumably because they believe that will also somehow accrue good luck. Maybe it has always been thus. We live in a deeply superstitious world. As we have travelled around we have noticed again and again that Mary is portrayed as large and life giving and succouring, whereas Jesus is mostly small, a baby and or a dead adult. The symbolism is powerful and the conclusions inescapable. I was struck by the huge frescoe of the Virgin who totally overshadowed the young boy Jesus on her lap. Mary is seen by many in this part of the world as the Theotokos, God bearer, which has led to her being called the mother of God. In my books if Mary was the mother of God, that makes her greater than God. In fact that makes her God. I know Rosanne has a different angle on this, but it worries me. Nevertheless, Hagia Sophia is an amazing building and one that has brought great glory to God. A few years ago my good friend Peter Corney recommended the book The Lost History of Eastern Christianity (I think I have the title right) which is the story of the Eastern Christian Church with its HQ in Constantinople. Then the Basilica of St Sophia was a Christian church not a mosque or a museum. How amazing it would have been to have seen it then. Perhaps the day will come when it is again a centre for Christian worship. One of the curious things about being in Turkey is the ubiquitous nature of Islam here. There are calls to prayer five times a day broadcast on loudspeakers everywhere, even in the Grand Bazaar. Yet Turkey is constitutionally a secular state in which church and state have been legally separated. So it is hard to understand why that doesn't seem to happen in practice.
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