Letter from Athens: Aghia Sophia, Why Do We Venerate Buildings?

August 1, 2020

There are buildings that awe and inspire with their grandeur, solemnity, or simplicity, from Japanese temples with zen gardens of swept gravel to the splendor of Aghia Sophia, the ancient 6th Century AD Roman church in Istanbul (which Greece calls Constantinople) that became a mosque when the city fell to the Turks in 1453.

It stayed that way for 481 years until 1934 when Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey wanted to take the country from the dark ages into the 20th Century and made it a museum for the world to enjoy, for the price of a ticket.

But that was soooooo 1934 and he didn't have pesky electorates like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who ordered it turned back into a mosque to satisfy his hard-core religious zealots and the High Court deferred to him because, well, he's the law.

He had, for him, the delicious moment of opening prayer inside the church – ah, mosque – after its mosaics and icons and anything Christian was covered in some fashion to protect the faithful from seeing a different God.

Unless they had been inside before then, they missed the reason the church was considered a marvel for its architecture and a UNESCO World Heritage site and draws some three million people a year to gawk reverently.

Built in 537 as the premier house of worship in the imperial capital of Constantinople, it was the largest Christian church of the Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantine Empire), except during the Latin Empire from 1204 to 1261, when it became the Roman Catholic cathedral.

It was dedicated by Emperor Justinian, six years after construction began to make what was then the world's largest building and the story goes that entering on Dec. 27, 537, he was thinking of the famous temple of Jerusalem.

It's hard to verify but he's is reported to have remarked, “Solomon, I have surpassed you!” based on various translations from Greek, and it still ranks among the world's most remarkable structures, but the Holiness is derived from those who believe it.

Christians for centuries worshiped the building and are outraged that it's now the Aghia Sophia Grand Mosque, the Turks somehow missing the irony that there's still a word there meaning Saint so those who pray inside are in the Saint Mosque.

They pray to their deity the same way Christians did to theirs and the same way those of the Jewish faith pray in synagogues, those who believe in the Shinto faith pray in shrines and Buddhists pray in temples.

But they're all just buildings designed, constructed, and maintained by human beings, not the God of your belief or they wouldn't need cleaning crews. There's no room in this debate for atheists who don't pray.

You don't have to be in a building to believe in something and if you're not, does that lessen your religion? In the cartoon strip Rick O'Shay, a western, the gunslinger character Hipshot Percussion prayed to nature, sitting on his horse and looking at what he believed God had created, and there wasn't a building to be seen, nor a church, synagogue, temple, shrine, or any structure.

So the question arises: what difference does it make what Aghia Sophia is? The fury hasn't subsided over the transformation of the building that is to Christians what Mecca and the al-Masjid al-?aram Great Mosque is to Muslims.

The Parthenon was a mosque at one point, as was the Cathedral of Cordoba in Spain – for 452 years, almost as long Aghia Sophia. But they're all just structures the same as an Amazon warehouse, a Wal-Mart, or Yankee Stadium, which any Yankee fan will tell you is a house of worship for them.

Churches were bombed to smithereens in World War I and World War II but rebuilt or others built, but Aghia Sophia is a flash point as much for politics as for religion and Erdogan used it for his personal end, not his alleged beliefs which really center around power and what that brings, like his 1100-room $615 million Presidential palace.

The Aghia Sophia would be a closet there but the point of the conversion is lost on people who think it's a religious issue.

The New York Times properly wrote that the monument had become a “political tool” for him, a building who no other meaning.

“Reversing Ataturk’s secular legacy “plays well among Turkish nationalists, for whom the museum inside the Aghia Sophia long represented a humiliating foreign imposition and a blot on the Ottoman past they glorify,” the paper added.

But Erdogan made a big show of pomp and circumstance meant to showcase his authority and taunt Greeks in another provocation as he was threatening to have Turkish ships (they're built by humans too) hunt for energy in waters off Greek islands.

Thousands of people prayed outside the Aghia Sophia Grand Mosque while he and handpicked VIPS got the box seats inside to put on their false piety act that only they and their rabid followers accepted.

Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, made a triumphal entrance into the building and purportedly was stunned by its magnificence – although likely not the icons of angels – and was said to have struck a soldier blinded with fanaticism trying to shatter the marble floor.

So celebrate the magnificence but God doesn't live there anymore.

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