In 532, amid the worst riots ever to sweep Constantinople, the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom – Hagia Sophia – went up in flames. Work on its replacement began barely a month later. Construction proceeded at a miraculous speed. Even though it took less than six years to complete, there was nothing remotely jerry-built about the finished church. The wisdom of God was made manifest in the most daring, spectacular and colossal vaulted interior that had ever been built. A dome, in majesty “like the very firmament that rests upon the air”, rose where previously there had been nothing but a gabled roof. The cathedral seemed to those who entered it a dazzling glimpse of heaven itself. When Justinian, the emperor who had commissioned Hagia Sophia, did so for the first time, he is said to have cried out in triumph, “Solomon, I have vanquished you!”
On July 19, the President of Turkey followed in Justinian’s footsteps. Four photographs posted on Twitter showed him standing in the most stupefying place of Christian worship ever built. Erdogan, however, had come to Hagia Sophia, not to celebrate Justinian’s legacy, but to appropriate it. “The spider holds the veil in the palace of Caesar; the owl calls the watches upon the tower of Afrasiab.” This was the Persian couplet that Mehmet II, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, had recited when, on the day of the city’s fall, he contemplated the final extinction of the Roman Empire.
Just as the great complex of buildings that had once constituted Justinian’s palace had been transformed into the seat of Ottoman power, so had the Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom become the Mosque of Ayasofya. To the conqueror the spoils. This was the message that Erdogan’s tweet proclaimed to the world. Just a week before, he had publicly quoted the couplet recited by Mehmet II in the palace of the Caesars. The Ottoman legacy of conquest could hardly have been more pointedly reclaimed as his own. Hagia Sophia, won for Islam at the point of a sword, was and would remain a mosque. “Justinian, I have vanquished you!”
And not only Justinian. Erdogan, for as long as he has been president, has always had a much more immediate rival in mind. In 1935, 13 years after the Ottoman Empire had gone the way of the Roman, Turkey’s first president converted Hagia Sophia into a museum. This, to Kemal Atatürk, had been quite as significant a repudiation of the building’s past as Mehmet II’s conversion of the cathedral into the mosque of Ayasofya had been. Atatürk, who dismissed Islam “as a rotting cadaver that poisons our lives,” had no time for any notion that Hagia Sophia might rank as something more than an ancient monument. This was why, in the secular republic that Turkey had officially become, he made sure to entrust it, not to imams, but to curators, historians, specialists in Byzantine art. Not just a museum, it was to serve as a symbol that the Turkish state, when it came to matters of religion, was sternly and rigorously neutral. Neither a cathedral nor a mosque, Hagia Sophia was instead to stand open to everyone.
Except that this, of course, was not at all a neutral position to take. “Christianity,” the Indian historian SN Balagangadhara has written, “spreads in two ways: through conversion and through secularisation.” He might more precisely have written “Western Christianity”: for the notion of the “secular” would have been no less alien to Justinian than to Mehmet II. Rooted as it was in the distinctive soil of Latin Christendom, in its theology, its history and its institutions, the secularism adopted by Atatürk was indeed – as Erdogan recognises all too clearly – an alien, Western import. If the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was a repudiation of Justinian’s purposes in founding it, then so too was its existence as a museum.
Yet the loss of Christianity’s greatest church, for all the anguish that it must inevitably cause Christians – and Orthodox Christians above all – does not render Hagia Sophia any the less a stimulus to faith and reflection for that reason. It is the great promise of the Bible, after all, that in death there is life, and in ruin resurrection. The House of God is burned, and the Son of God is tortured to death, and yet still God’s purposes are fulfilled.
Justinian, when he compared himself to Solomon, spoke more truly, perhaps, than he understood.
Tom Holland’s Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind has just been published in paperback
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