Sunday, July 19, 2020

Hagia Sophia

On May 13, 609, an old Roman Temple, the Pantheon was reconsecrated as the Church of Saint Mary and, the Martyrs. Over the centuries, many other churches have been created out of former temples, or built upon the ruins of temples which formerly had stood on that site. In medieval and early modern Spain, churches became mosques and then reverted to churches again after the reconquista As a result of the Protestant Reformation, countless Catholic cathedrals and churches became Protestant churches and still remain so. More recently, after the French conquest of Algeria the Ketchaoua Mosque in Algiers became the Cathedral of Saint Philippe in 1832. After Algerian independence, it became a mosque again in 1962. Turkey's restoration this week of Hagia Sophia as a mosque after almost a century as a museum must inevitably be viewed in the context of that common historical pattern.

Constructed as a Christian basilica,  Hagia Sophia  served for nearly nine centuries as the cathedral of the patriarchs of Constantinople and was widely esteemed as the greatest church in the world. (On first entering it, Emperor Justinian supposedly said, "Solomon, I have outdone you!") It was for a while turned into a Latin Catholic cathedral after the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204, but then became an Orthodox cathedral again after the Byzantine Empire regained Constantinople. After conquering Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror turned the world-famous basilica into a mosque. Its Byzantine mosaics were hidden and Islamic architectural features were added to the building. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk founded Turkey as a modern and secular republic. He allied Turkey with Western secularism and secularization, establishing his own Turkish type of laïcité. Hagia Sophia was declared "a unique architectural monument of art," and was preserved as a museum, which enabled some of the Byzantine Christian mosaics to be revealed again after so many centuries. Modern Turkey, like so much of the Muslim world, seems inclined to reject this Western secularist path. As one symbolically  powerful expression of that change, Turkey's present pro-Islamist government has now restored Hagia Sophia to its previous, post-Christian status as a mosque.

Obviously this obliteration of the building's centuries of Christian history is an incalculable loss to the world's artistic and cultural heritage. (I have always wanted to see Hagia Sophia, wonder of the world that it is, but, between this and my advancing age, I guess now I never will.) Even so, it is a bit extreme to suggest, as Thomas Madden did last week in First Things that "Hagia Sophia should no more be a mosque than the Parthenon should be restored to the worship of Athena." The obvious flaw in Madden's argument is that there is no significant cult of Athena today. If Greek nationalism were to take a "pagan" turn and replace Greek Orthodox Christianity with classical Hellenism as its defining national identity, then maybe there might be a movement to restore the Parthenon to its original cultic character. At present, however, most Greeks do not worship Athena. But most  Turks today do identify as Muslims, whatever their degree of religious observance. So the Parthenon analogy, while clever, is irrelevant.

Still that leaves a lot of issues potentially on the table. It remains to be seen what this will mean long-term for the Turkish regime, for Turkey's position in the Muslim world, for Russia's standing as protector of Orthodox communities in the Middle East, for the Middle Eastern Christians themselves, whose position is so increasingly precarious, and for the secular European project. While this may or may not be a decisive moment in some Huntingtonian clash-of-civilizations nightmare, it poses political as well as religious challenges, not least for future ventures in inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue. 

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