It was twelve years ago; I was in Turkey and we were running late. A visit to Hagia Sophia, the massive Cathedral built by Emperor Justinian between 532 and 537, was on our programme. We were crossing the Sea of Marmora and I was looking at my watch.
We would not make it. But Mehmet, our Muslim guide, persuaded the guards to allow us in even though it was after hours. We had this magnificent building to ourselves and I felt the emotion of standing in a place, adorned with icons and mosaics, where people had come to pray and celebrate the Eucharist for nine hundred years before the city fell to the Muslims in 1453.
The Muslim ruler at the time, also called Mehmet, had the icons and mosaic decorations covered over, but not destroyed, by whitewash. Then he put up Muslim symbols and turned the building into a mosque and so it remained for near to five hundred years. The Ottoman (Muslim) empire collapsed at the end of the First World War and the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in a gesture of reconciliation and modernisation, kept Hagia Sophia neither as a mosque nor as a Christian cathedral, but made it a museum, a neutral meeting place for all people.
Now this generous and imaginative act has been reversed and, despite protests from all over the world, the Islamic fundamentalist minded Muslims in Turkey, led by their populist-oriented ruler, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have made it a mosque again. ‘Populism’ is a rediscovered ideology which thrives on responding to the narrow interests of inward looking nationalism. The opposite is imagination, generosity and compassion and the loss of these qualities through this decision is causing the world to weep. Just when we need a dose of hope in a time of multiple challenges, we have an action which takes us backwards. Islam is going through this phase at the moment. It has not always been like that and, even now, not all Muslims agree with this revanchist response. If Mehmet, who took us round the sites of the Apostle Paul’s labours in, what was then, Asia Minor, is one to go by, there are many in Turkey who want to be open and welcoming to people who are different. Mehmet astonished me by the number of times he devoutly referred to ‘Mother Mary’, who appears in the Koran more often than she does in the Bible. He was not just being nice to a group of retired teachers from Catholic Ireland.
Hagia Sophia, Divine Wisdom, was from 1934 to last week a symbol, drawing all people together in solidarity. This decision is deeply painful, as Pope Francis has said. The people who made it cannot see that they are returning to a divisive past just when the world is searching for ways of coming together.
One consolation is that they do not have the momentum of history on their side. The decision will be reversed but not until it has run its course – as happened in Russia, when the revolutionaries renamed St Petersburg as Leningrad. The name was used for seventy years but now the city has reverted to its old name. And so it will be with Hagia Sophia, when narrow religious feeling has become a spent force.
19 July 2020 Sunday 16 A Wisdom 12:13…19 Romans 8:26-27 Matt 13:24-43