July 13, 2020

My Kingdom for a Church


My Kingdom for a Church
Fun fact: the Hagia Sophia was the world's largest building for nearly a thousand years. Dennis Jarvis, Wikimedia Commons

Here's a historical debate for the ages: the Russian Orthodox Church's Metropolitan Hilarion  recently decried the Turkish government's plan to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. The Metropolitan called the plan "unacceptable": "we can't go back to the Middle Ages now." And with the handing down of a Turkish court decision Friday, which would allow for the chuch's conversion, religious Russians may become even more rankled.

You may be wondering why the Russian Orthodox Church cares. The answer is complicated.

Hagia Sophia was built as a cathedral in the sixth century, when Instanbul (then Constantinople) was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Russia's brand of Orthodoxy reached Kievan Rus' in the tenth century from Constantinople, and religious, political, and trade ties between the two were myriad. In fact, many of the pieces of graffiti in the Hagia Sophia (including these) may have been left by people from medieval Russia.

When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the Turks turned the church into a mosque by removing the cross on top of the dome, adding four minarets, and plastering over the Christian mosaics inside.

In the early twentieth century, when the Ottoman Empire secularized itself into the Republic of Turkey, the Hagia Sophia was secularized into a museum, and is now a major attraction and site of veneration. It became a protected UNESCO site in 1985. The modern Turkish government, however, argues sovereignty.

For now, Russia might have to make do with its own eleventh-century Sophia cathedral.

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