Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 13 July 2020

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia is, without question, one of the great buildings of the world. 

Instantly recognisable it is one of those structures like St Peter’s or the Colosseum in Rome, St Paul’s or Windsor in this country, Notre Dame - on which the latest good news can be seen at Notre Dame spire will be rebuilt exactly as it was and Versailles in France or, further afield, the Taj Mahal in India, which is redolent of so much of the history, architecture, cultural formation and significance and, in many cases, the religious belief and practice of the societies that produced and used them.

The extraordinary history and nature of Hagia Sophia is outlined in some considerable detail in Hagia Sophia from Wikipedia and in a post from Medievalists.net in Hagia Sophia: Past, Present, Future.

The announcement last Friday by the government of Turkey that Hagia Sophia is to revert to being a mosque from its status as a museum, a building secularised in 1934, is a not insignificant news story in the midst of everything else that is happening. The change is reported, with reactions from various viewpoints, in Turkey turns iconic Istanbul museum into mosque

Further reaction from the World Council of Churches can be seen at Church body wants Hagia Sophia decision reversed, and the Pope has come off the diplomatic fence to express his disapproval as in Pope 'pained' by Hagia Sophia mosque decision and Pope Francis ‘pained’ by decision to turn Hagia Sophia into mosque

The comment by the Pope in his Angelus address is indicative of the importance of the Turkish move. The Papal silence on the topic until then has drawn the fire the Greeks, as in this piece from an English language Greek newspaper which can be seen at The Pope Remains Silent On The Conversion Of Hagia Sophia

Now I have to admit that part of me - not a very large part, but part - is not totally unsympathetic to this change in so far as it represents a move away from the baleful secularism of Ataturk’s republic, and one that has borne down heavily upon the residual Orthodox community of this successor state to the Ottoman Empire. Hagia Sophia was built as a place or worship, not to be a museum. If someone is praying officially there - and not just in a side ‘prayer room’ for the staff (vide supra) - that cannot be altogether bad.

That said, of course I would wish Hagia Sophia were changing its status to become one again the centre of Orthodox Christianity and for the Divine Liturgy to be celebrated there once again. For 
916 years it was and witnessed that as against 478 years as a mosque. That, of course, is the stuff of dreams.

The Ataturk solution of treating it as a museum, a monument to past ways of life, was a neutral solution - like all compromises it in one sense satisfied no-body, but still satisfied all to some extent by denying opponents of what they sought. Changing that situation is a doubtful move in a troubled region and world.

Hagia Sophia has witnessed so much since the time of Justinian that this latest decision is but one more episode in a long and turbulent history interspersed with earthquakes, renovations and restorations.

To return to my opening point the fact that this story is newsworthy and that it is attracting comments from the Phanar, the Vatican, the Moscow patriarchate and the WCC points to just how important Hagia Sophia is to Christendom, to Islam and to the world of culture. That fact is something to ponder - and in doing so it might indeed bring us a glimpse of Holy Wisdom.