NEW YORK – On August 9 the East Mediterranean Business Culture Alliance (EMBCA) presented an informative panel discussion titled “Aghia Sophia/the Holy Wisdom: Reflections on the 8th Wonder of the World” via Zoom in association with AHEPA's Hellenic Cultural Commission and AHEPA's New York District 6.
Lou Katsos, EMBCA's President and Chairman of AHEPA's Hellenic Cultural Commission, gave the opening remarks and moderated the discussion which featured the distinguished panelists John Fotiadis, President and Founder of John Fotiadis Architect PLLC; author and Byzantinist Alexander Billinis, Academic Researcher/Community Leader Dr. Peter Stavrianidis, and AHEPA Supreme President George Horiates.
Following the discussion, Mike Savvas, a UNESCO-awarded artist, songwriter, guitarist and tsoura player, performed a beautiful original piece, reflections on Aghia Sophia.
As Katsos noted, Aghia Sophia, over its long history, has been an Orthodox Patriarchal Cathedral, Catholic Church, Mosque, and Museum. More than any other building which has survived from antiquity, it symbolizes the crossing and meeting of religions, cultures, empires, civilizations, and regional hegemons. Fifteen hundred years after its dedication, it has transcended its original function as Cathedral, and transformed into a celebrated and contested symbol emblematic of the history of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Katsos said, “Although short notice, the recent conversion of this UNESCO World Heritage Site from a museum into a Mosque recently has created global condemnation and we felt that it was important to discuss the issues around it.”
The panel discussed Aghia Sophia's history, architectural and cultural significance as well as the geopolitics being played in the Eastern Mediterranean behind Erdogan's decision to reconvert Aghia Sophia.
All the panelists noted the timing and the politics behind Erdogan's decision as he tries to shore up support among the religious and the far right elements in his party through the conversion of this great world monument into a mosque.
Fotiadis pointed out that Aghia Sophia went from being the imperial cathedral to being the imperial mosque, noting that Aghia Sophia became the model for later mosques, and though the style became associated with Islamic architecture the roots are in the Christian Aghia Sophia. Katsos added that after the fall of Constantinople, the sultan Mehmed II called himself the Caesar of the Roman Empire, seeing his state as a continuation of the Empire.
Billinis noted that many symbols associated with Islam actually have Orthodox Christian roots, as churches were converted to mosques in many areas in the Balkans in the Eastern Roman Empire. Katsos added that symbols like the star and crescent which were actually the symbols from the flag of Constantinople, were among those adopted by the Ottoman Empire, pointing out that the builder of the Blue Mosque was in fact a student of the builder of Aghia Sophia.
Billinis said that the analogy of the Parthenon is good, with respect to the original intent of the monument, showing how Greece has preserved it as part of our Greek heritage and part of the global heritage, but that is not being done for Aghia Sophia.
Stavrianidis noted that many previous governments had wanted to convert Aghia Sophia from a museum into a mosque since the 1950s, but the secularists in Turkey opposed such a move over the years. He concluded by saying that Aghia Sophia is in our hearts, the holiness is always there, no matter what, and as a community, we respect other faiths and ethnicities, we act with wisdom, Sophia, and the best thing we can do is visit her, honor her, and encourage the new generation to do so.
The panelists all agreed that while we take pride in our Greek heritage and historic, Christian connection to the transcendent structure, Aghia Sophia does belong to the world.
AHEPA Supreme President George Horiates noted that the conversion is another example of how Turkey continues to oppose Western values and civilization and continues its provocations in the Eastern Mediterranean though it is supposed to be a NATO ally. He called for sanctions and a boycott, and for Turkey to uphold UN treaties on human rights even as it ignored UNESCO, a UN organization, concerning Aghia Sophia.
Katsos thanked the participants and invited everyone to the next online EMBCA event on August 30, the 2,500th Year Anniversary of The Battle of Thermopylae and Salamis Commemoration.
More information is available online: embca.com.