A Visit to Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, is one of the great gems of the world. It holds a special place in architectural and Christian history. The original church was built by Constantine in the 4th century CE but was destroyed by fire. In the 5th century the second church was built but that too was destroyed. In 537 under the patronage of Emperor Justinian I the current church was completed. Two geometricians Anthemius and Isidore led a team of 7,500 architects, stonemasons, bricklayers, sculptors, and mosaic artists who amazingly finished the building within five years – and drained the treasury. Never again would the Byzantines construct such a grand edifice. For nearly the next 1000 years it was the greatest church in the world, and the largest domed building in Europe. In 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul they converted it to a mosque. In the mid 20th century it was turned into a museum where Christians, Muslims and others can come and admire its past glory.

For the last twenty years I’ve wanted to walk inside this building. I’ve wanted to feel its presence and awe. I’ve wanted to imagine the great preachers of the past who have proclaimed the sovereignty of God and critiqued the political powers of the day. I’ve wanted to say a prayer inside it, giving thanks, remembering, and hoping for a future that honours our Christian past and improves on it.

So it was with some surprise and unease that the building did not stir my soul. This architectural masterpiece, gem of history, and nursery of Christianity did not inspire me. Something was missing.

Maybe I should have paid more attention to the sign outside. It called the building a ‘museum’ - a place that was about the past, not the present. It felt like visiting a graveyard where tourists come to admire the architecture and beauty of the gravestones but know or care little about those buried there. The visitors are certainly not related to the dead.

It was relationship that was missing. There was no community who cared and prayed in Hagia Sophia. Even in St Peter’s, Rome, that glorious tribute to Vatican power, where like Hagia Sophia the tourist trains rumble through by the minute, there is a living community that imbues the building with a sense of religious devotion. Although as a Protestant I am no admirer of much Vatican-think, I do know a holy building when I’m in one.

Is a church building without a community of faith no longer a church but a museum, a mausoleum? It felt that way. The two-decade-old scaffolding that cuts the nave virtually in half speaks volumes. No community of faith, Christian or Muslim, would live with that. They would find another way to care for their building. Restoration has to serve the faith community, not vice versa.

I think for the sake of its soul Hagia Sophia should not have left the embrace of either Christianity or Islam. Of course it would have been wonderful if these two great religions could have shared it. But they haven’t and look unlikely to. Therefore it would be better if Hagia Sophia reverted to being a mosque rather than continue as it is today. Its better that this great Church of Christendom has a praying community than remain a tombstone of past religions.

And who says that the Christian God isn’t listening when a Muslim prays?