The Hagia Sophia: A Museum or a Place of Worship?

by Thomas Bremer

Hagia Sophia

I categorically refuse to pay an entrance fee for a church, out of principle. When I was in Bratislava, and the Catholic cathedral charged a very small fee, I did not enter. When I returned to the wonderful Cathedral Church in Trogir, Croatia, two years ago, it was selling entrance tickets—so I relied on my memories. I once had the privilege of a private tour to the Sistine Chapel; I would not have paid to see it. In my view, there is a fundamental difference between a house of prayer which must be open to everybody, and a museum which can charge entrance fees.

However, the boundaries between churches and museums are frequently blurry. One does not pay to enter St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, but the mere fact that they have to have a person standing next to the entrance to bar visitors with dogs, ice cream cones, shorts, or bathing attire shows that many people do not regard it as a place for prayer, meditation, and adoration of God, but rather as a must-see during their visit to Rome. In St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was supposed to be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2017, but public outcry kept it a museum, with only occasional services. Now, a woman in trousers and her head uncovered can enter, walk around, and look closely at the paintings on the iconostasis—unless she enters the side nave dedicated to church use. Then, most likely an elderly woman will come and reproach her for not being properly dressed. I like the solution I saw in Krakow, Poland: the back part of St. Mary’s Basilica can be entered for prayer free of charge; tourists who want a better look at the famous altar woodwork must pay at another entrance.

This brings us to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, now making headlines. The Hagia Sophia has been a museum since 1935. For a relatively high admission fee, you could see one of the masterpieces of world architecture. Before that, however, for almost all of its existence it had served as a place for worship: for some thousand years as a Church, for some 500 years as a mosque. The Turkish authorities decided to turn it back into a mosque a couple of days ago. This decision evoked massive protests all over the world.

But imagine they had decided to turn it back into an Orthodox Church—to dedicate it again to the purpose for which it was built. Are we sure that those who have bemoaned the recent decision and spoken about the universal value of Hagia Sophia would still have protested? Would they have said that “any change of the balance and the status quo can gravely damage mutual understanding in the world, the dialogue of civilizations and cultures, and interreligious dialogue,” as Metropolitan Ilarion of the Russian Orthodox Church has put it? Hardly.

Now imagine something else. Let’s say the Turkish authorities had checked historical evidence and discovered that in its last months as a church Hagia Sophia was not Orthodox at all, but Uniate. The union decree of Florence was proclaimed there in the presence of the Emperor and of the court on Dec 12, 1452. After that, only priests who were in favor of the union were allowed to celebrate liturgy in the Hagia Sophia. As the union was odious to most people in Constantinople, they had to serve almost without laity. Nevertheless, formally it was a church loyal to the union, and the last liturgy was concelebratedby anti-union and pro-union clergy (in the presence of Cardinal Isidore of Kyiv), shortly before Mehmed the Conqueror entered it on May 29,1453 and turned it immediately into a mosque. If we allow for a moment the absurd thought that it would become Greek Catholic again—would we not hear basically the same complaints that we hear now?

That means that the conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a place of worship is bad, as long as it is not “our” worship. It seems that it is better to have a museum where you pay an entrance fee, walk around with fellow tourists, have tour guides explain the history of the place in different languages, than to have a place where people revere God, if they do it not in exactly the way in which we do it in our churches. Isn’t that hypocritical? It is not about praying as such; it is about possession and dominance. Christians do not “possess” the Hagia Sophia anymore. Some of them think that therefore no religion should “possess” it, no one should be able to use it for services. But was not the Hagia Sophia’s purpose always an expression of the time in which it existed? The Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the secular Turkish Republic, and now the re-emergence of a new Muslim consciousness—all were specific historical circumstances, and an Orthodox Church, a mosque, a museum, and now again a mosque were their expressions.

What, then, could be an appropriate reaction? For starters: Turkey is a country with an undemocratic government. One can and should criticize its government because of human rights issues, because it does not guarantee the freedom of press and of expression, because it does not address its history (above all the genocide done in the Ottoman Empire to the Armenians and to the Syriacs), because it meddles into the affairs of neighboring states, and many other issues. Western countries do criticize Turkey sometimes on some issues, not out of principle, but in accordance to their own interests, and they keep silent about others—also a form of hypocrisy. President Erdogan has said that Muslims and non-Muslims alike will have access to Hagia Sophia once it is turned into a mosque again, and that there will be no entrance fee (as a mosque, it will fall under the Ministry of Religious Foundations which is financially much better off than the Ministry of Culture to which it belonged as a museum). Instead of crying out loudly now, we should watch his concrete actions. But making a museum a place of worship is not in itself something evil.

Thomas Bremer teaches Ecumenical Theology and Eastern Churches Studies at Münster University, Germany.