The world’s most famous church goes up in flames. Some look on in shock and anguish. Some are quietly cheered to watch it go, some not so quietly. Some are too busy to notice—there is a great deal else going on these days. As the fire licks the building’s crest, the terrified, the hopeful, and the previously distracted all look on and wonder: will the church survive?
It is a familiar scene. But it is not Paris in 2019. It is Constantinople, 532. The outcome this time is less providential: a church is reduced to ash. After the riots are cleared–some things, alas, are always with us—the Emperor Justinian is resolved that a new cathedral must rise in its place. The work that follows is enormous. For the project, ten thousand laborers are brought on, which is one of every 50 people in this, the largest city in the world. If we limit our sample to working-age men, it may be as many as one in 15.
Construction is done remarkably fast. The new church is consecrated not six years after breaking ground at the just-burned ruins of the old cathedral. It is a marvel. Solid geometry and intricate design incarnate our —our hope—that the glory of Rome has not been lost. It is at once an image of the City of God and an image of the city here, with each stone having been laid by hand.
In August of 553 an earthquake shakes the church. On December 14, four years later, another cracks the dome. On May 7 of the following year, old men who built the dome when they were young men watched it fall to yet another earthquake. Few will live to see it raised again, but nine years later a new generation can be proud that they, too, put their hands to what their fathers built. (A lesson may be gleaned from the fact that repair took longer than the initial task.)
For nine hundred years the Hagia Sophia continues as the vital center of the city and its Church. It survives iconoclasm, fire, more earthquakes, and the Great Schism of 1054. With the Fourth Crusade, it passes briefly, with the city, back into Catholic hands, only to return to Orthodox hands half a century later. From time to time, it falls into a state of disrepair; such an ambitious structure requires constant attention and renovation. During these centuries, it is a kind of microcosm of the Christian world—sometimes vibrant, sometimes neglected, the intersection of the material and the spiritual, constantly evolving, devolving, reviving, and dynamic. At times it is torn by infighting and fraternal wars, but it points toward the Kingdom through it all.
The tides turn in 1453. The armies of Mehmet the Conqueror are camped outside the gates. The women, the children, the sick, and the elderly all find shelter in the church, and the Divine Liturgy continues despite the chaos beyond the doors. Any man who can fight, meanwhile, stands ready to do just that. But it will not be enough. The invaders sweep through the city and quickly make their way to the cathedral, where the vulnerable lay trapped. Those who are not killed are enslaved. The riches of the cathedral are robbed and the relics destroyed. What happens here is plain, though it is rarely (if ever) called by its name: desecration.
When they finish ransacking—three full days later—the conquering force converts the church into a mosque. Islamic occupiers plaster over mosaics of the Theotokos and of Christ Pantokrator, of the Church Fathers and the prophets. They know not what they do. How could they? Their whole religion is younger than these walls. When the first Mohammedan armies were killing their way across the Arabian peninsula, this dome had already collapsed and been rebuilt.
The building is dressed up as a mosque for about half as long as it was properly a church. In 1923, the Ottoman Empire gives way to the modern Republic of Turkey, and the religious building is converted into a museum by 1935. It is by far the shortest-lived of the space’s many identities, and for obvious reasons. This constructed neutrality is even more foreign to the cathedral’s nature than its use as a mosque. At least in the latter it is directed toward religious ends, and some small part of the divine grandeur built into the place is realized. The vacuum of purpose that such a pathetic misappropriation as the former creates, meanwhile, practically demands redirection to something higher. It is no surprise, then, that the Turkish government led by President Erdoğan has announced this week the reversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
This is the crisis of public religion transcribed onto a single, concrete site. The place of the Church will be occupied, whether by the Church or a pretender. Elsewhere it is less tangible; political influence, moral guidance, time, and energy are ceded to other powers. In the repeated corruption of one of Christendom’s most important, most storied, and most beautiful churches, however, this concession finds a dramatic distillation. Just as the other domains, it has been contested for centuries. None of this is new. But we do find ourselves in a decisive moment.
In all such moments, something must be done. One route is diplomatic. We should not underestimate the power of a unified Christian voice, East and West, sending a strong message to Erdoğan’s government that the building must be returned to its intended use. Russia and the U.S. alone may be enough to exert the necessary pressure, if they could come together to send such a message. If that fails then there is, to put it mildly, some precedent for taking the building by other means. We must, at the very least, be able to tell Our Lord that we fought for His church.
In 2018 Erdoğan, already edging toward his reconquest of that church, offered a Muslim prayer on its grounds to the “souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul’s conqueror.” This surely would have seemed a bitter irony to the ten thousand who broke their backs and bloodied their hands laying the church stone by stone, the new generations who repaired it through the centuries, and the terrified Christians who took their last breath there in 1453. They would have some unwelcome news if they could speak today: this holy place is not Erdoğan’s inheritance, nor is it the people’s to whom he offers it. As a matter of fact, those Christians do still speak in a way—in every corner, every tile, and every stone of the church they left behind. We whose inheritance it is ought to take hold of it, one way or another, or he will. Make no mistake: whichever way Hagia Sophia goes, the world goes sooner or later.
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