Historical Observations: The Restoration of Aghia Sophia to Christian Worship, March 1919

November 28, 2020
By Stavros Stavrides

These two documents support the restoration of Aghia Sophia to Christianity, pointing out its significance of this building for that religion. The Turks had other mosques where they could conduct their religious worship in Constantinople. The St. Sophia Redemption Committee pointed out that Islam's major religious sites were located in "Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and Damascus" and "the Sherif of Mecca has himself raised the standard against the Sultan " during the First World War.

Some of the well-known signatories in the Redemption committee were: Ronald Cantaur (the Archbishop of Canterbury 1903-28), Ronald M. Burrows, Principal of King's College, London, member of the Anglo-Hellenic League and an ardent Venizelist, A.C. Headlam, an Anglican clergyman who held the position of Regius Professor of Divinity, 1918-23, and J.B. Bury, an Anglo-Irish historian who specialized in classical history and also wrote three books on ancient Greece covering Alexander the Great, Greek historians and the Hellenistic age. These individuals were philhellenes who supported the Greek cause.

Canon Howell was a member of the Episcopal Church of Scotland whose diocese supported the restitution of Aghia Sophia for Christian worship and avoided making a political comment on the future of Constantinople.

Arnold J. Toynbee, the noted British historian worked in the intelligence department of the British Foreign Office during the great war. He served as a delegate on the British delegation at the Paris peace conference in 1919 and also reported on the Greek-Turkish war for the Manchester Guardian during 1921-22.

His response to the two documents was to recommend avoiding the reconversion of Aghia Sophia into a Christian church which would "will inflame religious feeling in the Middle East" between Christians and Muslims.

The following documents are produced in full:

1. Samuel Hoare, President of the St. Sophia Redemption Committee, to Prime Minister, Lloyd George, March 7, 1919, attached memorial:

“That building from its antiquity, its structure, which marks the greatest advance ever made at one bound in architecture, it's wonderful beauty and its extraordinary history, is in some respects the greatest Church in Christendom.

For nine hundred years it had been the chief shrine of Christian worship in the East Roman world when Constantinople fell, and the Ottoman Emperor transformed it into a Mosque as the symbol of Turkish sovereignty over Eastern Christendom. That sovereignty, by general consent, has gone forever.

The misrule and oppression of centuries have culminated during the great war in massacre of the Christian races so terrible that the conscience of Europe and America has been appalled, and is now aroused to the fact that the Turk, as the wielder of the ‘Sword of Islam’ is a survival of barbarism which cannot be any longer tolerated. Even the Mohammedan world has separated itself from Ottoman cruelty and treachery, and the Sherif of Mecca has himself raised the standard against the Sultan.

We urge that whilst the Suleimaniyeh and other imperial mosques of Constantinople should remain in the hands of Islam, justice requires that the Christians of that city, who form the large majority of its inhabitants, should have their priceless building restored to them. It has no special sacredness for Muslims. Their shrine of pilgrimage lies outside the city. Nor is Constantinople to them a holy city like Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem, and Damascus. Its value in their eyes is merely political.

Finally, we submit that the claims of art should not be set aside. The great Church is now in a serious condition, urgently needing structural repairs, and must inevitably collapse if it is not placed in capable hands.

The glorious mosaics, a precious heritage amongst the artistic treasures of the world, should be uncovered from the defacement which is necessarily imposed so long as the building, constructed and decorated for one faith, is alienated and devoted to another.”

Some well-known signatories: Randall Cantaur, Ronald M. Burrows, G.K Chesterton, Arthur Evans, Gilbert Murray, H. Wace, Francis W. Pender, Donald Maclean, J.B. Bury, Hugh Cecil, Samuel Hoare, St. Joe Strachey, C.C. Wakefield, A.C. Headlam, Arthur Limpus, A. Selborne.

2. Canon Howell MA, Synod Clerk of Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway resolution sent to Prime Minister Lloyd George, March 8, 1919 At the annual meeting of above Diocese resolution:

"The Synod of the United Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway, while expressing no opinion as to the political future of Constantinople, strongly urges the restoration to Christian worship of the ancient church of S. Sophia."

3. Minute by Arnold J. Toynbee:

“Removing Constantinople would be striking a blow to the Ottoman State but Muslim population of Constantinople who is 50% of the city's population, Depriving this population of their main mosque, we will not by injuring them not as Osmanlis but as Muslim citizens of an international state, whom we shall be penalized at the expense of their fellow citizens. This will arouse the resentment not only among the Turks but all over the Muslim world.

The sole argument for reconversion is historical and this is inherently vicious it means settling the future not in reference to the future but the past.

Reconversion will inflame religious feelings in the Middle East (with all its catastrophic accompaniments) though it should be the object of the peace conference to allow it.

For the sake of satisfying the antiquarian sentiment of a few individuals, we shall be planting fresh seeds of massacre in every district in the Middle East where Muslims and Christians live together.

A beautiful building ceases to be beautiful when it becomes a cause of hatred and bloodshed. If were better leveled to the ground.

I venture to make the following suggestions for the treatment of the building (a) the mandatory in the Straits should take architectural control of it as an architectural monument of Islam and Islamic civilization.”


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