A Museum, or a Place of Worship?: Thoughts on Hagia Sophia and a Proposal for the Parthenon

Photo: idsb.tmgrup.com.tr Photo: idsb.tmgrup.com.tr     

Hagia Sophia is to be converted to a mosque. The whole Christian world (diverting its attention momentarily from fear of the coronavirus) is outraged; in many of those places where churches are actually open, prayers are being said that the Turkish authorities may reverse this decision. The Pope is ‘pained’. Even the World Council of Churches, finding a limit to their ecumenistic tolerance, have wagged a collective finger. One would think that the infidels were locking some Christian congregation out of their basilica and forbidding them to sing!

Certainly, one cannot rejoice over the re-masjidification of a place that, a millennium ago seemed more in heaven than on earth. But the Church of the Holy Wisdom has been desecrated many times since and had been desecrated before. The new mosque’s managers are unlikely to place a harlot on the patriarchal throne, as happened when the drunken thugs of the Fourth Crusade rampaged through the city; instead, they are requiring visitors to remove their shoes as they tread on holy ground. If the dome will now once again resound with Muslim prayers as it did for five centuries, it has resounded with alien prayer before: not only with the prayers of Roman Catholics, but with those of monothelites and unionists. The icons will merely be covered for part of the day by curtains, but even if they should again be whitewashed, it must be remembered that the cathedral endured two earlier waves of Christian iconoclasm, backed by emperors and patriarchs.

Was Ataturk’s conversion of the mosque into a museum also a desecration? Surely it was as offensive to Muslims of the time as, say, the closure of a great Orthodox cathedral by state authority would be to Christians now. (Of course, such an event cannot be imagined!)

Muslims have a long history of re-purposing the edifices of other religions. The Kaaba itself was, from the somewhat limited geographical perspective of the Companions of the Prophet, the greatest pagan temple in the world (and one that contained in its god-collection an ikon of the Virgin and Child, the only ‘idol’ spared, for a time, by the zealots of the new faith). The Temple in Jerusalem was long gone when the Arab conquerors arrived, but they claimed the space with their Dome of the Rock. Countless Muslim warlords have dreamt (and dream still) of being the fulfiller of prophecy who recites verses from the Koran at the high altar of St. Peter’s.

Why do the triumphant Knights of Islam sometimes re-use the sanctuaries of other faiths, instead of destroying them as they did the Buddhas of Bamyan? No doubt to some extent from practicality: unlike giant Bodhisattva figures, giant domes are easily converted from the service of one religious system to that of another, with excellent financial savings. But there is a theological basis as well, which may be caricatured as a set of four propositions. They believe:

1. That (their) God exists, and is the source of all values;

2. That the goal of human life is the worship of (their) God;

3. That adherents of religions other than theirs are worshipping the wrong God, or at best worshipping the true God wrongly;

4. That all the arts, sciences, achievements, buildings and so forth of societies practicing other religions should be repurposed to the glory of (their) God, either to show that (their) God has triumphed or, more generously, to fulfil the misguided but well-meaning pious intentions of the original creators.

From an Orthodox Christian perspective, it seems to me, the only problem with these four propositions is the word ‘their’ and its derivatives. Replace the word with ‘our Triune’, and what error can be found in them? Did not St. Basil call us, too, to be bees in the meadows of alien culture? Was not the Parthenon made into a church... But I run too quickly.

On the other hand, what messages were the overtly secular and anti-Islamic rulers of twentieth century Turkey trying to send when (at the suggestion of American archaeologists with a somewhat more complex agenda) they converted Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum?

1. That universal human (in practice, Western) culture is the source of all values;

2. That the goal of human life is service to the nation (or some other aspect of secular society, perhaps even service to humanity as a whole);

3. That religions are social phenomena, components (perhaps but not necessarily valuable ones) of national or broader human history;

4. That artistically or historically significant religious buildings are part of a nation’s (or humankind’s) heritage, not simply the property of a particular religion, and can be appreciated for their beauty, for their significance in the growth of the nation or the March of Progress, and so on.

In the 1900s, this attitude was part of the Westernizing Turkish nationalism that led Ataturk to replace the fez with the homburg as the national hat. Today, Turkish nationalists are more likely fervent Muslims, but the museumisers’ message still flourishes outside Turkey. Thus, Hagia Sophia is (undisputedly) an artistic, architectural, and technological masterpiece; it was the setting of major events in the history of global civilisation (including religious events such as the conversion of Vladimir’s emissaries and the Schism of 1054); it is a symbol of the multi-ethnic, multicultural empires of Byzantium and the Ottomans. It is a place where visitors from around Turkey can admire the glories of their country’s past, while others from around the world can feel uplifted by the surprising capacity of human beings to construct a whopping big dome without benefit of computers, calculus, or even steam power. In the revealing words of Abbot Bartholomew of Esphigmenou, ‘It is a global destination, above religions and peoples, a universal cultural heritage, a global symbol of unity. This unity is the answer for all of us to every movement of nationalism and fanaticism.’1 [Emphasis added.]

Of course, it is also a place where Greeks can wax nostalgic about lost empires, and Turks can do the same. The latter aspects, more than Muslim piety, is doubtless the largest factor in the current re-conversion plans. This makes Hagia Sophia a politically valuable place for men like Mr. Erdogan, and a dangerous place for the world. It is hardly impossible that war will erupt as a (probably indirect) result of Turkey’s decision.

What is the appropriate Orthodox Christian response? Wringing one’s hands? Howling with exaggerated grief and anger? Writing a note of protest to the Turkish embassy? ‘Discontinuing the restoration of the Valide mosque in Mytilene?’ (That’ll show ’em! Eye for an eye!) Mobilising the Hellenic Navy?

Or: Praying for the conversion of Turkey, so that Hagia Sophia can someday be an Orthodox church with an Orthodox congregation? Evangelizing Muslims everywhere? Re-opening churches that have flesh-and-blood, modern parishioners? Making those existing churches so spiritually beautiful that visitors will not know if they are on earth or in heaven? Abandoning the more-than-papist ideology and the paradoxical combination of phyletism and ecumenism currently dominant in the Fener?

Or even: Emulating the infidels’ example?

Once upon a time, in the Acropolis of Athens, there was a magnificent Orthodox church overlooking the city. It had been a (relatively minor) Pagan temple for eight centuries, dedicated to Athene Parthenos. With the coming of Christianity, it was rededicated to the Theotokos ‘Atheniotissa’, the Athenian. The site of a miraculous ‘inextinguishable light’ and holding the relics of St. Macarius the Great, it was one of the chief pilgrimage destinations of the East Roman world. Eight centuries passed; the Empire fell. The church was Roman Catholic for a while, then Orthodox again. The Turks (who had restored the church to the Orthodox) later changed it into a mosque, and then, unwisely, into a powder magazine during the Venetian siege. For unclear reasons, the post-explosion ruins came to represent the Glory That Was Greece (meaning Pagan, classical Greece) to generations of antiquarians in Northern Europe, and, therefore, to represent the dream of renewed national greatness to the citizens of the Hellenic Republic. (For those interested, the Christian history of the Parthenon has been exhaustively researched by Prof. Anthony Kaldellis, whose writings on the subject are widely available in English.)

The appearance of this great church has been reconstructed by scholars. Some striking images may be viewed here.

(These depictions include the asymmetrically placed bell-tower, which was added during the Latin occupation and later used a minaret by the Turks, but otherwise show the temple exterior very much as it would have appeared to the East Romans.) As Prof. Kaldellis has pointed out, this history (even the Roman Catholic part) has to a large extent been intentionally censored, in the interest of secular myth-making about the ‘Dark Ages’. The extensive restoration work conducted on the Acropolis has been aimed almost entirely at evoking the Periclean era. Some carvings of a drunken brawl between centaurs and Lapiths, prominently displayed in the British Museum since 1816, have for decades been the cause of endless popular agitation and governmental chest-pounding, but the Christian antiquities of the Parthenon attract almost no interest whatever.

I propose that we Orthodox should emulate the Turkish Muslims and begin a campaign for the restoration of the Parthenon as a cathedral. The restoration should of course respect the pagan origins of the building—those Classical era mythological carvings not already moved to museums in Athens, London, or elsewhere should remain. Visitors and tourists should be welcome (except, obviously, in the restored apse). Archaeology, too, should continue (perhaps with a less exclusive focus on the Classical and pre-Classical periods, however). But the building should cease to be a ruin and should once again become a working church.

The Parthenon is one of the most famous structures in the world, and (although this would have surprised Plato and his contemporaries) has become the pre-eminent symbol of all that is best in both the Hellenic and broader Western cultural traditions. By reviving the Parthenon as an Orthodox cathedral, the Church could signal to all that Orthodoxy is the universal faith, the faith that encompasses everything that is good, true, and beautiful. The existence of such a cathedral would testify that the idols have been overthrown—not so much Phidias’s long-lost statue of Athene as the idols of secular arrogance. At the national level, it would demonstrate both the continuity of Greek culture and the radical transformation brought by the Gospel. Located in the heart of an Orthodox Christian city, the Parthenon would be guaranteed a congregation (which Hagia Sophia will never have until the Turks convert). Who knows—perhaps God will even grant a miracle, such as the inextinguishable light of old.

May all the effort currently put into protesting the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque be redirected into converting the Parthenon ruins into a cathedral, of COVID-emptied churches into places where visitors do not know if they are on earth or in heaven, of good Muslims into better Christians, and of our sinful hearts into temples of the Holy Wisdom.

Dionysius Reddington,
Lubbock, Texas


1 https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2020/07/hagia-sophia-symbol-of-unity.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Mystagogy+%28MYSTAGOGY%29

Moderator8/24/2020 5:52 pm
Sotira: Please send your comment again. Perhaps it was lost or overlooked. Unless there is something inappropriate in it, we will open it.
Sotiria 8/24/2020 2:12 pm
Where is my comment? I sent it many days ago.
Ahmed8/3/2020 11:49 pm
Excellent writing!
Suzanne Miller8/2/2020 12:40 pm
I'm an Episcopalian but am totally united, spiritually,with the Orthodox world. I was blessed, years ago, to travel throughout Anatolia and go to the early places at which the Christian church sprung forth. That included Hagia Sophia. A group of us gathered under the dome, off to the side, and, without offending anyone, made a prayer of remembrance for all those who had gone before and served and worshipped the Lord in this place.I took away from that trip a reverence for the character and piety of the people who had lived there and the churches they built as monuments to their faith. All that has vanished, now, with the ethnic cleansing by an occupying alien people, the Turks. Prime minister Erdogan is playing a dangerous game. NATO saved Turkey from atheistic Soviet dominance after WWII. Now he is playing footsy with Vladimir Putin as well as the jihadists. Who will stand up for the Turks if Putin decides to annex Anatolia? I don't wish foreign domination on anyone, but the present Turkish government is alienating the rest of the world by their foolish and offensive behavior. This will not end well. Turkey should return to a policy of goodwill towards all. God does love all his children.
Antiochene Son7/28/2020 5:50 pm
The points are well taken, although I don't like the equivocation on the four points. The Holy Trinity is objectively the only God which exists, so while an outside observer could engage in "whataboutism", saying that we would do the same thing if the roles were reversed, the fact is that Islam is false and Christianity is true. I am not accusing Dionysius of saying this, but some Orthodox have: to those who say, "At least it is a place of worship again," I would say, better to have no worship than false worship. I would rather see the grand church collapse than for demons to be worshiped inside it, but God has seen fit for this to happen, probably to convict us of our failure to convert the Turks and the rest of the world, preferring to rest on our withered laurels than to harvest fresh ones.
Theodoros 7/27/2020 3:32 pm
The article here mentions the Pope and the World Council of Churches (whose protests in my opinion are irrelevant) but does not mention that the Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Georgian, Albanian, Czexk and Slovakian, and Antiochian Churches have joined the Greek Churches in condemning the Islamicization of Hagia Sophia. Even if Hagia Sophia is not a Church today, it's origins emanate from the Gospel and Orthodox faith and dogma. During the twentieth century, the Turks were responsible for the genocide and ethnic cleansing of Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians. Seen in this context, the conversion of Hagia Sophia is simply another slap at the Christian faith. I am not an apologist for Patriarch Bartholomew considering his destructive actions in recent years and find his behavior from the Council of Crete to Ukraine to be worthy of his being deposed. However, the status of his Patriarchate in Turkey is an entirely different situation. Evangelizing Muslim societies is a very difficult task, particularly when the Church in a Muslim country has been the recipient of violence and ethnic cleansing. I am of the opinion that one reason why the Greek world stubbornly insists on overlooking Patriarch Bartholomew's canonical transgressions is because of the difficult situation that his Patriarchate has encountered in Turkey including being the victim of assassination attempts and state sponsored discrimination. This is an entirely different issue from what has transpired in his policies to Orthodoxy in the last several years. Criticism of the Phanar should be based on his external policies of aggression directed at other Churches (notably the Russian) not on his position in Turkey. The late George Horton who was American consul general to Smyrna in 1922 wrote about Turkey as a Muslim country and the extraordinary difficulty Christians had in trying to convert Muslims. One cannot evangelize a society against its free will and which is violently opposed to even learning about the Christian faith, much less to receive it. Yes it is true that Hagia Sophia has been desecrated by the Crusaders and iconoclasts, but that says more about the moral integrity and behavior of those heretics than it does about a Church that was defiled by them. Turkey today is full of Mosques that were specifically built for use in Islam. The purpose for the conversion of Hagia Sophia is to promote Islamic triumphalism and Jidadism. Taken in historical context with the state sponsored massacres, pogroms and other acts of violence against all Christian communities in Turkey this is one more deplorable act on the part of the Turkish state. The Muslim world demands respect for its own places of worship and holy book. It is not unreasonable for many Orthodox to merely ask that Hagia Sophia be maintained as is and should not be disturbed any further. This in addition to the fact that Hagia Sophia is place of martyrdom where many Christians were either slaughtered or taken away into slavery when the last liturgy was interrupted in 1453. And despite the Erdogan government's assurances that the Christian mosaics will be preserved, it is only a matter of time when the world is no longer paying attention that images of Christ, the theotokos, and the saints will be destroyed as they have been in numerous Churches throughout Asia Minor and Turkish occupied Cyprus.
Matfey Shaheen7/27/2020 1:18 pm
Bravo! This may be one of the best commentaries on this topic. While I admit, to a degree, I love the romantic triumphal histories of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire, the land where my ancestors came from, and Holy Rus', the land where I live, but I must say sometimes we Orthodox are quite prone to grand standing in the face of such issues, like this Turkish insult to the Great Church of Constantinople, when we ourselves forget not all of our Orthodox countries and societies are exemplary models of the virtues we confess. Most of us, even in the "Orthodox countries", live in highly secularised societies which can be just as indifferent to religious piety and values as any other. These are countries where people today would still viciously mock pious Orthodox monarchs, where abortion is still common, and where the impious constantly protest the building of new churches under socialist slogans such as "We want hospitals — not cathedrals." A false deleema really, considering the church gave us the Basiliad and the first hospitals. Without pointing fingers, there are several Orthodox countries with ancient Orthodox Holy sites that are now more or less secularised nationalised monuments and tourist attractions. If we want to complain about this insult to our glorious Hagia Sophia - and rightfully so - why don't we also restore to the church the most prestine shrine of Athens? That's a very good point and one that should be raised in Greek society. If Hellenic peoples wish to consider themselves the first great Orthodox civilization, then why shouldn't arguably the most recognisable Greek building, which was once a Church, become a church again, when it was the Turkish occupiers who converted it in the first place? Triumphalism and Patriotism is all good and well to project outward and build giant victorious archs in our capital cities, but looking inward, internally, constructive criticism is much more useful. Many times we can critize other societies, but sometimes I think we must all take a serious look at our own and ask ourselves: We know for a fact Orthodoxy is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, but the question is this: if a new totally foreign people saw how we behave today, in our churches, would they say, as aforetime the envoy of Rus', "We did not know if we are on heaven or earth; but there is God among His people?" If not, then for the sake of repentance and the Unity of the faith we must continue to pray...
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