The Meaning of Hagia Sophia: A Traveler’s Perspective

by Elizabeth Scott Tervo | Ελληνικά

Hagia Sophia Mosaic

The church of Hagia Sophia was the preeminent monument of Christian architecture and an active church for almost a millennium until the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, when the clergy and people were slaughtered as they celebrated their last Liturgy. Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque for Muslim prayers until 1934, when the new secular leadership of the Turkish state declared it a museum. Hagia Sophia was preserved as a tourist site, and no prayers of any kind were allowed. However, earlier this year, the Turkish government under the leadership of President Erdogan, restarted Muslim prayers. Hagia Sophia became a mosque again.

For the current president of Turkey and his supporters, the meaning of this event is clear: the ascendancy, supremacy, and inevitable victory of Islam. For Orthodox Christians—and for all Christians who are aware of it—the event is a source of anguish. These two meanings are clear and incompatible.

Yet there is another perspective to consider. Millions of tourists, many from Europe and America, visit Hagia Sophia every year for its historical and cultural importance. What impression will they come away with now? And how can we compare it to the reaction of previous tourists who viewed the museum? Western tourists are likely to be well-off, well-educated, and leaders in their own countries. Their impressions are not merely personal, but have the potential to affect world events.

I visited Hagia Sophia more than twenty ears ago, as a regular tourist. I had a day layover in Istanbul on my way from the U.S. to Tbilisi, and I decided to spend some hours looking at the city. At that time I did not know that Hagia Sophia and her City and the long years of captivity live on viscerally in in the hearts of the Greeks. But I was familiar, from the Russian side, with the medieval story of the Slavic visitors in the tenth century who proclaimed, “We did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth…we can not forget such beauty.”

The entire visit was dreamlike in my sleep-deprived condition, but I found the area ready to receive tourists, with wide walkways, a park, and easy-to-read signage in English guiding us visitors to Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the bazaar. My heart rose as Hagia Sophia came into view. I have a photo of the approach to it, the same one that any other tourist takes. I approached and entered, disregarding the crowd of people trying to be hired as guides, and the building impressed me with its ancient massiveness.

It was old, dark, and cold, in contrast to the sunny day outside. The walls were heavy and thick, blank except for the remnants of Islamic patterned decorations and lettering. I walked around by myself. Only a few tourists like me were walking around and talking in hushed voices. I was taken aback because I did not see or even sense any echo of the heavenly atmosphere. It was empty. I decided to walk through the whole building since I had nothing better to do.

I was walking though the upper levels when I turned a corner and suddenly came face to face with Christ, the Theotokos, and John the Baptist. They were alive, glowing, sparkling and almost moving toward me in living color. I was stopped in my tracks. It took me a minute to realize that they were only mosaics on the wall. But they looked at me and I thought, what is this place I am in? Where am I, if even one small area, where the plaster has been removed, is like this?

After a while I went on to the Blue Mosque like all the other tourists. I passed the places where people washed before prayers and entered into an area set apart for the second-class people, the non-Muslims, at the back of the enormous hall. It was full of arches, like a church, and also empty. But it was meant to be empty. And it was full of light, decorated with infinitesimal flowery frescoes, and carpets lined the floor. It was well cared for, and beautiful. The shape was the same as Hagia Sophia, but oh so different.

I found the place wonderfully refreshing, and since I was tired from my long walk, I stood there for a long time resting.  Many cycles of tourists came in, looked around, and left again. These were American and European travelers, as I could tell from their faces and the languages they spoke, and I had seen many of them passing through Hagia Sophia like myself earlier. As I stood there, I overheard their comments:

“It’s all the same.”

“It’s all one God.”

“You can pray anywhere.”

“All religions are the same.”

These were the meanings that the secular Turkish state had organized for its visitors to perceive and take home with them. One, that Christianity and Islam are essentially equivalent and indeed all religions are equivalent. This message is the one that post-Christian Westerners are particularly susceptible to. Two, from the buildings themselves: that Christianity is antiquated and gloomy, falling apart, while Islam is bright, new and beautiful. (Indeed, the tension between these two thoughts, whether Islam is equivalent to Christianity, or superior, lies at the very heart of Erdogan’s struggle to retain power.)

However, that was twenty years ago. What is the message of Hagia Sophia now? What is the meaning of its re-conversation to a mosque? One does hope that at least the building will be better cared for, but for Erdogan and his followers and a certain segment of the Muslim world, the message is clear: the supremacy of Islam. For Christians, however, it is anguish again, and prayer and tears.

But the millions of tourists, what will they see? Europeans and Americans have little interest in admiring the story of the victory of Islam via military conquest. At best tourists will leave with a new respect for Islam. But they will now see Hagia Sophia as a visible captive. That is not the same thing as touring a museum of secularism.

May it not be that these millions of tourists, these well-off, powerful Westerners, may leave with an inkling of the sorrow the Orthodox feel about the defeat, the conquest, the captivity of Hagia Sophia, which has lately been all but forgotten in the West?

Elizabeth Scott Tervo is a presvytera of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, a writer, and a poet. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Wheel, St. Katherine Review, the New Haven Review, and The Reception of the Holy and Great Council: Reflections of Orthodox Christian Women (ed. Carrie Frederick Frost), and she has a forthcoming memoir about her days as a student in the Soviet Union.