Saturday, January 3, 2015
Istanbul - Hagia Sophia
What a wonder this church become mosque become museum is. I believe the time space continuum is anointed by the prayers and meditations of devotees through the centuries. I feel most moved in such sacred places.
Hagia Sophia is very much such a place despite the secularization that is occurring now with it’s museum status. The spirit of intellectual curiosity that infuses the environs of any library or place of great learning is separate from the depth of surrender and faith that goes with devotion.
I believe that where the mystics find direct contact with God then the men of politics and business will follow. There building of churches, temples and synagogues may be at those places where there is a nodal point between he dimensions of this world and next. These sacred places may well be proto religious. I feel the sense of wonder in nature at points of greatest beauty. A sense of ones own insignificance and an appreciation of the grandeur of the Other (God) is inherent in these moments.
Hagia Sophia touched me the moment we entered her grounds. But some of that feeling might simply be the anticipation and excitement that is attached to seeing a great artist, attending an important performance. There was that sense of timeliness.
I had come to Instanbul, traveled so far, on pilgrimage to this church of Constantine’s, the emperor of Rome who had changed a small religion of the outer realms into the central state religion of the largest empire of the day.
Christianity’s claim to fame as a distinctive religion was it’s quality of being a personal or even peasant religion as opposed to what Nietze described as a view of the Superman. Spirituality speaks to the individual experience of awe and wonder, the individual desire and need for prayer and meditation, that individual quest for truth and meaning. Religion is the organizational structures that surround and embellish this experience. Jesus called God ‘Abba’, which means ‘papa’ or ‘daddy’. Religions prior to this spoke of the divine as ‘great’ and powerful. The first ‘big man’ or ‘chief’ of the early political units would be seen by himself and his followers as God man. These were the divine leaders of the Egyptian states and Roman States. That Nero was God and Kings were divine would wait at least till the Magna Carta (perhaps the beginning most point of the process of secularization and the first step to a modern world) to be formally challenged other than by assassinations, revolutions and violent dethronements.
The one God of monotheism was prior to Jesus separated from the being of the ruler though the ruler could still be blessed by this God and a people or individual could be chosen. The God, however, was a serious master, with qualities at least as Nietze would have liked , a SuperGod or Superman. This God the father was not the message Jesus that God is Love and God as Daddy. The Creator thereafter had heart and we could know God in the little things, the baby, the littlest moment, the smallest of things.
The relations of God and man was prior to Jesus directional, God down but Jesus washing the feet of his disciples showed that the relationship of God and man was bidirectional. Love more than fear was central to the relationship. The simplest message of Jesus shared by disciples and propagated by his apostles, especially Saint Paul would be transformed by the religion which would grow with the growth in numbers.
I had known of Constantine in the study of history but came to a greater awareness of him through hearing a lecture at Regent College by a visiting English scholar considered the foremost authority on Constantine. He said that Constantine had been a Sun God worshipper and hence we have sabbath on Sunday rather than the Saturday of the Jews. He also said that Constantine was a pragmatist and great general who saw that the Christians were the force of righteousness and backbone in the armies. Despite or because of persecution they had a greater strength in the military than the pagan elements. Further their messages got through to distant groups without disclosure and in tact. It was therefore ‘good news’ for an Emperor in a fight to the death for prime leadership to have a ‘revelation’ somewhat imitative of the one that St. Paul was said to have. Constantine won at Milvian Bridge and Christianity as a state religion was established. The orthodox religion came out of the council of Nicea later in Turkey where those elements of Christianity, reincarnation for one, as but an example along with other less ‘useful’ beliefs were ‘expunged’ from the mainstream religion, a religion which while personal and maintaining much of the original message of Jesus would not conflict with the political authority of Constantine as emperor.
Yet Jesus was an outlaw and his religion was that of the rebel. It was a difficult juggle and orthodoxy till today remains a tension embedded in that relationship of Father and Son. The trinity of Father and Son and Holy Spirit which depicts the one god as triune being of equal and whole is intellectually so gnarly as to demand truly a leap of faith.
Psychiatrists argue that if you don’t adopt a group delusion then you are at highest risk of psychosis for developing your own alienating and isolating paranoia. Central to the religion of Christianity is the Mother and Child, God as vulnerable as a baby needing a human mother and the mother as fulfilled in her creation of a child. This is clearly so at variance with the death cult of radical feminism which would freely abort creation in exchange for the withered womb of the virgin spinster. Yet here is a Virgin Mother celebrating the continuity of life in her god child.
Definitely heady stuff. But also heart felt and soul full.
Here was an Emperor who had come from a long line of Emperors who had persecuted Christians inviting them into the greatest house the world had ever known, Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom) to debate and lead and be well fed and sleep safely protected now by albeit a strange bedfellow. Just as it is understandable why an Emperor would want to use a spirituality and proto religion for his own those underground leaders of the early and diverse church would naturally gravitate to the attractiveness for them of the new relationship and possibility of greater evangelism. There were no doubt dissenting voices but out of this divine and human combination would come the birth of a new religion.
The monotheism of Judaism had God the father but now Christianity had God the Father and God the Son. The Holy Spirit which ideologically might well represent the all present mother, the elephant in the living room of men, was definitely mysterious and much mystery would follow along with intrigue and ceremony.
Mohammed when he created the Moslem religion would build on the religion of Judaism and Christianity and perhaps emphasize the mystery more. In the Hagia Sophia the invading Turks in 1453 led by Sultan (or King) Mehmed II took over the Hagia Sophia and turned it into a mosque. First they removed the crosses and then they painted and plastered over all the pictures for in their houses of prayer there can be no images. So entering the Hagia Sophia the crosses that were once on the door have had their wings removed.
When Attaturk (Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) chased out the Sultan to become the first president of the new Republic of Turkey in 1923, he declared the largest mosque of Turkey, the Hagia Sophia, that which had been at the centre of the original Turkish conquest of the Constantinople, which had changed the city to Istanbul, now became a museum. My guide told me that while Mustafa was Moslem as my guide is Moslem in the struggle for power and division of state and church this act of changing the Hagia Sophia to a museum was truly a major political act. Today the paint which concealed the images that had adorned the original dome are visible today because they are viewed as ‘art’ in this museum. Yet the feeling of the Hagia Sophia is something more than that of a museum. The Moslem name of God, Allah, and the name of his prophet, Mohammed, are written on two great discs in the Hagia Sophia as in other mosques.
Mehmet told me to become a Moslem is relatively easy. “You must simply accept and declare that there is one God Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. “ Of course as in all things religions there is much that follows and the devil could well be said to be in the details. For to be a Christian one must simply declare that Jesus in Lord and Son of God. But there can be only one God and while the Jews have but one god, their God’s name is Yahweh and the Moslems one god’s name is Allah which a Christian might accept either as a ‘father’, it is to Jesus as God and advocate that he says his prayer. And while Hindus might accept Mohammed as a prophet as Christians saw John as a prophet and Jews saw Isaiah, the bugbear is that Moslems see Mohammed as his last prophet. Naturally science which has been called by some as secular religion sees no end but scientific insight going on into perpetuity.
In their mosques Moslems celebrate the names of his first four caliphates and subsequent leaders.
Mehmet explained to me that the first division of the moslem church occurred with the fourth and fifth leaders and while Sunni held to the teachings of the first four the Shiites accepted the fourth and fifth. This lead to the time of persecution for the Shiites which places a ritual of mourning and despair in the centre of their subsequent religious devotions. I look forward to learning more of the theological significance of these divisions as important to Moslems as Martin Luther's division of Christianity into Catholicism and Prostestantism.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is called simply Ataturk, a title today meaning Father of Turkey. He was a military officer during World War I and following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire he became leader of the Turkish National Movement. He lead the Turkish War of Independence and defeated the troops sent by the Allies. He then lead the development of Turkey as a modern and secular nation-state. It was he that changed Hagia Sophia to a museum and viewed it as art and architecture.
Hagia Sophia means Divine Wisdom and is a dedication thereby to the “Logos” or second person of the Divine Trinity. It is famous for it’s massive dome and was said to have changed the very history of architecture. It remained the world’s largest building till the Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. The present building was constructed between 532 and 537 under orders of Emperor Justintine, the two previous buildings having been destroyed. The first dome made on the site collapsed with an earthquake while the second church ordered by Theodosius II was destroyed by fire in riots. That Nika Revolt had followed dispute between the Patriarch of Constantinople John Chrysostom and Empress Eudoxia, wife of the Emperor Arcadius. The first church on the site was called the Great Church and commissioned by Constantine the Great though built by his son Constantius II and inaugurated in 360.
The Hagia Sophia served as the Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It became a mosque in 1453 and then was secularized as a museum in 1935.
My guide Mehmet and I entered the Hagia Sophia through the Imperial Gate which had only been used by emperors. The mosaic above the Gate is of Christ seated on his throne. The emperor with a halo is bowing to him. On left side of Christ is the archangel Gabriel and on his right His Mother Mary.
By the main dome of Hagia Sophia are mosaics of four angels. Two are shown with their faces while two have their faces concealed. Mehmet explained that in the mosque the faces of the angels had been covered over but their six winged bodies could still be seen.
Ofnthe floor was the marble circle Omphalion. I’d seen the Omphalos first at Dephi. Omphalion means ‘navel’ of the world. Mehmet explained that this was considered the ‘centre’ of the body of the earth and that Constantine had moved it east along with himself. It was the site of coronation of the Byzantine emperors thereafter.
In the Apse is the Virgin and child mosaic. I love to contemplate the faces and how each artist captured or portrayed divinity and the sacred.
Remaining from the period of time as a mosque are the names of God, Allah
and his prophet, Mohammed.
The Christian church was pointed to the east which is the location of the main stained glass window but as Moslems must pray facing Mecca to the South east the church orientation is offset in the interior.
On the second floor the women prayed. I stood where the Empress had prayed and could look down into the body of the church. The Empress did not walk but was carried to the second floor.
Further along on the second floor was a doorway for the area exclusive for the clergy. Here there are more mosaics. The Deesis Mosaic probably dates from 1261 and commemorated the time of the Roman Catholic use by the Crusaders and return to the orthodox faith. Virgin Mary and John the Baptist stand on either side of Christ. A picture of the mosaic showed what it would look like fully restored .
A comedic element was pointed out to me by Mehmet. It’ was Viking script essentially saying “i was here” carved on the bannister.
The Empress Zoe mosaic is in the best soap opera tradition and I’m thankful to Mehmet for sharing
the story. Apparently Empress Zoe had several husbands and when each died she changed the face on her mosaic. This is her last husband.
There were two great marble urns in the Hagia Sophia. I enjoyed that one had a cat perched beside it watching all the people coming and going.
We exited through the gate over which was the mosaic of the Virgin and Child flanked by Justinian I and Constantine I.
After Mehmet and I had coffee in the lovely garden. When the cathedral became a mosque the minarets were added as was the building for ritual ablution and another where the tombs of five Sultans were buried.
It was a wonderful tour of the Hagia Sophia that reminded me of my time in Rome at St. Peters. Such magnificent structures and such love and care in all the details and design. I was very moved by the experience and hope to return.