Hagia Sophia: “it is fortunate you are here now”

This past New Year’s Eve, I found myself stranded in Istanbul, Turkey. My final destination was Rome and Assisi, but an irresistibly cheap fare (that included what was supposed to be just a two-hour layover at Ataturk Airport) carried me hundreds of miles past the Apennine Peninsula to the threshold of Asia Minor, where a winter storm caused the cancellation of dozens of flights, including my connection.

Due to the weather, thousands of people were stranded at the airport. Islamic pilgrims making Hajj to Mecca assembled at gates for flights to Jeddah who appeared as stranded as I was (perhaps more so, given the limitations of their garb: flowing white linen robes and sandals, little protection from the inches of snow that continued accumulating outside).

Even the airline’s hotel desk in the main terminal was inaccessible. The line to the counter, five or six persons wide, trailed like an interminable serpent through the airport – slow and languid, like a reptile placed in the freezer. So I resolved to strike out on my own. I Kayaked my way to a reservation for the night at a nearby Courtyard by Marriott, and thanks to the hotel’s free shuttle service, easily made it there.

In place of the steeples and crosses across the skyline of any Western city, in Istanbul there are minarets and golden crescents. was the foreigner — not just in terms of language and color, but creed as well. Were I in Rome at that moment, I would have considered myself practically at home, compared to Istanbul.

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The snow continued to fall that night, and after dinner in the hotel restaurant, I returned to my room for sleep. I greeted the New Year in dormition. Sometime in the morning hours, the snowfall and clouds abandoned Turkish skies, giving way to a morning of crystal blue against fresh white.

I returned to the airport before breakfast, although my flight wasn’t scheduled to depart until the evening. I did so because I found out that the airline offered a free tour of Istanbul for delayed passengers, complete with tour guide, tour bus, breakfast and lunch. The tour would include a visit to Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom”.

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A wonder of the world, construction of this edifice began in 537 A.D., and was originally the patriarchal basilica of the Patriarch of Constantinople, making it almost a millennia more ancient than the current St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was also the world’s largest cathedral until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.

IMG_0768In 1453 the Ottoman Turks invaded Constantinople and took possession of the city. Sultan Mehmed II permitted his troops three days of unchecked terror over the city, including the Hagia Sophia. The seat of Byzantium, and the place where Holy Roman Emperors standing in the “center of the world” received their crowns, was pillaged and desecrated. Holy relics were secreted away from the Hagia Sophia lest they be desecrated also.

Christian refugees prayed the Liturgy of the Hours within the Hagia Sophia during the siege. The invading horde entered the basilica to find Christians — priests, women, children and the elderly — who had taken refuge there. Trapped within, women and girls were raped, and enslaved, violated or killed along with the rest.

Grafitti

Grafitti

Soon thereafter the Sultan ordered that the Hagia Sophia be converted to a mosque. Minarets and other Islamic elements were added to the structure and interior.

Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum. Our tour guide, a Muslim, maintained that in the centuries of the Hagia Sophia being in Islamic possession, nothing was ever intentionally damaged or destroyed. This is simply and patently false.

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Apart from the fact that Sultan Mehmed II permitted his soldiers to pilfer the entire city, including Hagia Sophia, in the years that followed, mosque workers indulged in removing stones from the mosaics on the walls, and oftentimes sold them to visitors. You can clearly see that anywhere that a mosaic is within reach, the stones from the mosaic have been removed. Only the parts of the images outside ordinary reach remain intact. Upper images (including the ones revealed by fallen plaster) are almost entirely whole.

IMG_0808In addition, there is the extensive use of plaster throughout the vaulting on the upper walls and in the dome of the structure, which covers a host of Christian images. Some claim that these precious works were covered with plaster to protect them from further damage. But there was the secondary benefit of putting them out of sight and hiding the historical reality of the building.

IMG_0811The building is in a perpetual state of crumble, so that plaster frequently falls off surfaces revealing beautiful Christian artwork and imagery underneath, creating problems for the Turkish authorities who must decide whether to permit such works to remain in view, or be covered again.

Turkey’s last century saw the formation of a secular government, efforts at Western-style democracy, and alliance with the United States. But that is slowly changing. Islamist political movements are growing in power. The hijab – once banned from schools and other public places like government buildings – is in resurgence.

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Before entering the main floor of the Hagia Sophia, our tour guide briefly introduced its history to us, and I’ll never forget the way he did so: he told us that we were “very fortunate to be here today, when Hagia Sophia is still a museum. Turkey is changing,” he said, “and soon Hagia Sophia will be a mosque again. So it is fortunate you are here now, before that happens.” This fellow, with his black leather biker jacket and designed jeans, did not strike me as especially religious. Yet, he spoke with a sort of certainty that filled me with dread.

IMG_0831Despite how resolute he was, I might have dismissed what he said, except that there are prominent leaders in Turkey who apparently share the same view. The conversion of Hagia Sophia is a movement that’s been growing for at least ten years. Most recently, in 2015 the Mufti of Ankara, apparently in retaliation for the acknowledgment by Pope Francis of the Armenian Genocide, stated that he believes the conversion into a mosque will be accelerated.

Once I made it inside, I cast my eyes upward to take in the magnificent main dome, surrounded by four six-winged angels. And then I moved to the second floor gallery in search of the best-preserved mosaics.

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I wanted, more than anything else, to see the famed Deësis mosaic: Christ on Judgment Day, flanked on his right by Our Lady, and St. John the Baptist on his left. All that remains of this treasure (after years of stones peeled off by miscreants) is the upper half of Jesus and St. John, and the head and shoulder of the Blessed Virgin.

I stood there, beholding the soft blue eyes and still vibrant lavender of Mary’s raiment, Jesus’ hand raised mid-action, His gaze suffused with Divine countenance, and – possibly best of all – John’s wild flowing locks blown in the wind of the Holy Spirit, and his noble head inclined toward God and Man.

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I choked up. I felt gratitude, to receive such a moment of blessing. I felt anger, indignant at the vandals who picked over such sacredness and the interlopers who besmirched it. I felt sadness at the manifested disunity and conflict of this fallen world, the usurpation of just dignity.

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But more than all else, I felt joy. The Hagia Sophia is a place that once contained Our Lord’s own Real Presence. Yet, today we can not now be seen visibly praying there. It is against the law. Yet, I was praying. I was in communion, and living proof that Christ is, was, and ever will be Sovereign of all. Come what may, whether here, or anywhere.

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6 thoughts on “Hagia Sophia: “it is fortunate you are here now”

  1. This is on my bucket list but it looks like that window is closing. That was very well written and I’m thankful you were stranded!

  2. I was unaware that the reason for the mosaics looking the way they do now is due to vandals and miscreants (an underused word, for sure). I felt the same bitterness as I was reading this.

  3. If we would turn our faces back to God with contrite hearts, he would have mercy on us. If our daily prayer was fervent, and our homes full of children in obedience to God’s commands, we would receive his favor again. We barely defeated the enemies in WWII when faith was believed and practiced and good triumphed. I’m not so sure God would rescue us the next time because of our unbelief.

  4. Standing in the upper galleries looking down to the floor beneath the dome I recalled and described the image of carnage the Turks and their “religion of peace” brought. The floor of the Hagia Sophia covered with dead bodies. Many woman and children fled there for sanctuary thinking the Turks would not pillage a holy place. Lets be blunt ISIS and the Turks are copying the example of Mohamed who is the model for their life. He is the one who set an example and commanded his followers to conquer and extort submission.
    “The assault on Constantinople began after midnight, into the 29th of May 1453. … The battle lasted two hours and the irregulars withdrew in disorder, leaving behind an unknown number of dead and wounded.

    Next came the Anatolian troops of Ishak Pasha. They tried to storm the stockades. …This second attack also failed.

    But now came the Janissaries (what an irony that they were born Greek Orthodox), disciplined, professional, ruthless warriors, superbly trained, ready to die for their master, the Sultan. … Then a group of enemy soldiers unexpectedly entered the city from a small sally-port called Kerkoporta, on the wall of Blachernae, where this wall joined the triple wall. Fighting broke near the small gate with the defenders trying to eliminate the intruders.

    It was almost day now, the first light, before sunrise, …. More Janissaries came in and many reached the inner wall.

    Meanwhile more were pouring in through the Kerkoporta, where the defenders had not been able to eliminate the first intruders. Soon the first enemy flags were seen on the walls. …

    Now, thousands of Ottoman soldiers were pouring into the city. …

    Bands of Ottoman soldiers began now looting. … Monasteries and Convents were broken in. Their tenants were killed, nuns were raped, many, to avoid dishonor, killed themselves. Killing, raping, looting, burning, enslaving, went on and on according to tradition. The troops had to satisfy themselves. The great doors of Saint Sophia were forced open, and crowds of angry soldiers came in and fell upon the unfortunate worshippers. Pillaging and killing in the holy place went on for hours. Similar was the fate of worshippers in most churches in the city. Everything that could be taken from the splendid buildings was taken by the new masters of the Imperial capital. Icons were destroyed, precious manuscripts were lost forever. Thousands of civilians were enslaved, soldiers fought over young boys and young women. Death and enslavement did not distinguish among social classes. Nobles and peasants were treated with equal ruthlessness.
    “The enraged Turkish soldiers . . . gave no quarter. When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance, they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions… There were virgins who awoke from troubled sleep to find those brigands standing over them with bloody hands and faces full of abject fury… [The Turkish jihadis] dragged them, tore them, forced them, dishonored them, raped them at the cross-roads and made them submit to the most terrible outrages…

    Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions, and a thousand other terrible things happened. . .

    Temples [including Hagia Sophia] were desecrated, ransacked and pillaged . . . sacred objects were scornfully flung aside, the holy icons and the holy vessels were desecrated…. Immense numbers of sacred and profane books were flung on the fire or torn up and trampled under foot.”

    From the book “The Fall of Constantinople 1453” by Steven Runciman, page 147 in the chapter “The Fate of the Vanquished”:

    “The Holy Liturgy was ended, and the service of matins was being sung. At the sound of the tumult outside the huge bronze gates of the building were closed. Inside the congregation prayed for the miracle that alone could save them. They prayed in vain. It was not long before the doors were battered down and the worshippers trapped. A few of them, the ancient and the infirm were killed on the spot; but most of them were tied of chained together. Veils and scarves were torn off the women to serve as ropes. Many of the lovelier maidens and youths and many of the richer-clad nobles were almost torn to death as their captors quarreled over them. Soon a procession of ill-sorted little groups of men and women bound tightly together was being dragged to the soldiers bivouacs, there to be fought over once again. The priests went on chanting at the alter till they too were taken. But at the last moment, so the faithful believed, a few of them snatched up the holiest vessels and moved to the southern wall of the sanctuary. It opened for them and closed behind them; and there they will remain until the sacred edifice becomes a church once more.

    The pillage continued all day. Monasteries and convents were entered and their inmates rounded up. Some of the younger nuns preferred martyrdom o dishonour and flung themselves to death down well-shafts; but the monks and the elder nuns now obeyed the old passive Orthodox Church and made no resistance.”

    The Church should be returned to the Patriarch of Constantinople.
    The Turks are not from Turkey but invaded and ethnically cleansed the area in an ongoing policy that resulted in the Armenian Genocide and expulsion of Greeks. The present influx of Moslems into Europe is part of the Moslem colonisation of Europe with the express aim of doing to St Peters hat was done in Christian Constantinople.

    “A group of devout Muslims from across Turkey prayed before the city’s historic Hagia Sophia on the 562nd anniversary of the Turkish conquest of Istanbul [Constantinople], demanding that the site be turned back into a mosque”.

  5. Pingback: Update on Hagia Sophia | Quartermaster of the Barque

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