Heaven on Earth
“And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.”
This is how the ambassadors of the Kievan Rus described their experience of the Hagia Sophia in the 10th century. Their sensation of aw and wonder was strong enough to make them abandon their faith and convert to the Christianity capable of building such a temple.
Since July of last year, the Hagia Sophia has become enmeshed in matters far less celestial, ever since its reconversion from a museum back into a mosque.
Before we get into the ugly side of politics, let’s take a moment to appreciate this wonder of the world both ancient and contemporary.
The Hagia Sophia – ‘holy wisdom’ in Greek – is a cosmos in its own right. I imagine it possible and enjoyable for a man to live his entire life in the building and say at the end of his life, “my life has been full of meaning and beauty!”
Its dome, a marvel of architecture, so much so it was believed to be held up by God himself, dominates the city’s skyline like a second sun. It was the largest dome in the world at the time of its building and remained so for over 900 years until the construction of Brunelleschi’s dome of the cathedral of Firenze.
The dome sets the standard for grandeur within the building. To walk through its halls, crowned by the dome, ribbed by granite Byzantine columns, must be like crashing into the heart of a star. Light here is paramount, a gift from the heavens raining down on all man-made art acting as a celestial ‘like’.
Its naves still bear, though in impure form, the mosaics that date to the time when this building, more than any other, was the heart of Christendom; golden Christs and Virgins gaze down on their viewers, imposing, always out of reach, their naves a heaven-away-from-heaven.
Their splendour doesn’t lie merely in their artistic merit but their role in a grand act of historic irony; Byzantines, before the arrival of Islam, also deplored icons, and for a time all images of divine representation were barred in Byzantine art. This abhorrence of images was soon – and bloodily – abandoned, spectacularly so, and now, the forbidding of icons intrinsic to another religion is dominating the narrative of the Hagia Sophia in the 21st century.
Ever since the populist, pro-Islamic government lead by the neo-Sultan Erdogan finally succeeded in reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the Byzantine icons found themselves, once more, at the heart of history.
Erdogan’s decision was as shocking to the secular, liberal world as the Super League was to football fans. The Hagia Sophia was declared a museum by perhaps the greatest Turk of all, Kemal Ataturk, in 1934. Public prayer was banned in the building as was the call to prayer. Many opponents of Erdogan see his coup as a great up-yours to Turkey’s first president and secular founding father.
When Justinian completed the construction of the Hagia Sophia in 537 AD, he gazed upon it and, like God admiring his creation, exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” Erdogan must have thought along the same lines when the first prayers in nearly a century where held in the Hagia Sophia: “Ataturk, I have outdone thee!”
No one, I’m sure, is in doubt that the imams and Muslim administrators of the Hagia Sophia will continue to preserve their mosque, their new jewel in the crown. But many observers worried over the fate of the Christian mosaics. The problem isn’t precisely that they depict Jesus and other Christian figures. But the fact that they depict human figures at all. Something completely forbidden in Islam, as it was for a time in the Eastern Roman Empire as well.
The compromise reached has been to have the mosaics covered during service, then uncovered when tourists were permitted entry into the Hagia Sophia. A fair compromise, perhaps. It is also reassuring to know that tourists will still be allowed entry into the mosque, free of charge.
Will that continue to be so, I wonder?
St. John’s Co-Cathedral
As a Maltese citizen I am innately opposed to Ottomanism of any form. The same conquerors that overwhelmed Constantinople would, over a century later, swarm my own island. Malta, however, unlike Constantinople, didn’t fall to the sultan and his invincible janissaries. We held out, in what was perhaps our greatest historic achievement until the Second World War. Again, to make the analogy with football, it was akin to Leicester City winning the Premier League. Or even Malta’s national football team actually beating Turkey.
Even so, blind patriotism aside, when I look towards what is perhaps Malta’s equivalent wonder, the St. John’s Co-Cathedral of Valletta, I begin to think a dangerous thought: maybe the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is not as catastrophic as our immediate reactions lead us to think.
The St. John’s Co-Cathedral was built in the 1570’s by the Knight of St. John – a perennial thorn in the Ottoman’s side – as their conventual church. Over the years it became a Baroque tributary; all the greatest artists of Malta, Italy and beyond flooded in to make it the overwhelming spectacle it is today.
It is of course far smaller than the Hagia Sophia but no less ornate. Everywhere you look your eyes fall upon gold, lapis lazuli, a painted ceiling depicting the life of St. John the Baptist, a floor covered entirely by tombstones, chapels, paintings, sculptures – and that’s not to mention two masterpieces of Caravaggio hidden away in the oratory.
It is a monumentally beautiful church and I feel privileged to live so close to it. I grew up with it. Visited many times as a child, adult, and during my stint as a tour guide. And it is my experience as a tour guide that is giving me these sacrilegious doubts.
I have had the fortune, though I myself am a badly lapsed Catholic, of experiencing the cathedral both as a church and a museum. And I tell you what, the museum experience is verging on the profane. To see the cathedral – and it is still a church, though it is owned by the state – swarmed by culture-hogs with audio-guides stuck to their ears, their children raging stomping over burials of long-dead Knights, taking selfies with artistic masterpieces… it is almost a sickening sight. For a while, as a tour guide, I was a part of that shit-show.
Can an atheist seriously use the word sacrilege? I think I have to. I may not be a religious believer but I do believe in the sanctity of history and the divinity of art.
Every few Sundays of the year I still make it a point to listen to mass in the cathedral. Not the whole thing, of course. Every time, I get shivers. To hear the priest’s sermon in a haunting, echoing Maltese, amidst the shimmering of gold, and to see worshippers making the sign of the cross facing the altarpiece, a sculpture depicting St. John the Baptist by Melchiorre Cafà, a local sculptor who, had he not died so young could have gone on to rival Michelangelo – I feel speechless.
A Dangerous Argument
In researching this article I looked up the stream from the day the Hagia Sophia was reopened as a mosque. It’s a 3-hour-long ceremony, and I watched most of it. Dear reader, you should too. It was both spine-chilling and unsettling. It gave me a similar to sensation to hearing mass in the St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
The Christian icons were indeed covered, but that took nothing away from the majesty of the space, a space which, after all, was designed for worship, not tourism. I think both Christians and Muslims can agree on that. It was a joy to see a building over 1,500 years old being used as it was meant to be used, almost in a way fulfilling its destiny.
Turkey’s greatest living writer, Orhan Pamuk, is famously quoted as saying: “I sometimes joke that I am the first writer of historical fiction who can look out his window and point to the objects in his novels. I have a view of the entrance to the Bosporus, the old city, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque.”
That’s the same sense I had watching prayers at the Hagia Sophia.
Of course, I am not singing out from the hills what a cultured, sophisticated man Erdogan is, and how this is an act of beauty and historical destiny. I deplore his neo-Ottoman attitude, his sucking up to the bad elements within Islam, and deplore altogether the stamp he is leaving behind on a country as incredible as Turkey.
And I wouldn’t dare to question the poetry and elegance of Ataturk’s decision to make the Hagia Sophia a museum, taking it away from the clutches of dogma and releasing it into the wilds of secularism.
Such decisions are never one-sided. And if our times are cursed with anything it is the curse of binarism. Our innate urge to declare something unequivocally good or bad, ethical or evil, moral or immoral. Life is far more complex than that. As the art critic John Ruskin wrote: “I never met wth a question yet, of any importance, which did not need, for the right solution of it, at least one positive and one negative answer, like an equation of the second degree. Mostly, matters of any consequence are three-sided, or four-sided, or polygonal; and the trotting round a polygon is severe work for people any way stiff in their opinions. For myself, I am never satisfied that I have handled a subject properly till I have contradicted myself at least three times: but once must do for this evening.”
In this article I have contradicted myself twice, so perhaps I’ve fallen short. Even so, I do not hide from the question, the thought, that the idea of the Hagia Sophia being used as a place of worship might add to its dignity. I see mass, commercial, selfie-obsessed tourism as a blight on the beauty and numinosity of history as much as rampant construction is a blight on landscapes and cityscapes. So if President Erdogan’s monomaniacal, Islamist-serving decision can serve as an accidental but welcome blow to the ignominies of mass tourism, then, with a heavy heart, I will concede that maybe, maybe, this reconversion is not the greatest of all evils.