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Scholar Calls Aghia Sophia Reconversion “An Anti-Orthodox, Anti-Greek Ideology”

The tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are a complex ritual of events and power. As negotiations between Greece and Turkey appear to be once more on the horizon, an early (in Turkey’s recent set of actions) event targeted a historic seat or ritual and power. Continuing the exploration of the consequences and meaning of Aghia Sophia’s reconversion into a mosque, The National Herald spoke to UCLA’s Professor of Byzantine Art & Archaeology, Dr. Sharon Gerstel, who is also the Director of the UCLA Stavros Niarchos Foundation Center for the Study of Hellenic Culture. 

Alexander Mordoudack: This is a time of intense political upheaval in the Mediterranean, and the reconversion of Aghia Sophia into a mosque is one of the most thunderous shots heard. In its echoing, I am reminded of Baldwin of Flanders, stepping into Aghia Sophia to claim his rule in the wake, then, of not an inter- but an intra-dogma fight. It seems like Aghia Sophia has always been a site of such political determination, has it not? Why does it remain this theater for the political? 

Sharon Gerstel: Aghia Sophia has been and always will be the greatest symbol of Byzantium and Orthodoxy. It was the center of imperial and patriarchal ritual and power and, sited above the Bosporus, it proclaimed the city’s identity to any visitor approaching by sea. From the time it was built, the church inspired awe and, in some cases, envy. Thus, it is not unexpected that conquerors would use Aghia Sophia to manifest changes in power through re-consecration (in 1204 under the Crusaders) or conversion (in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks). Even under the long Ottoman rule and subsequent secular rule brought about by Atatürk, however, the building continued to assert its original power through the enduring myth of the “marble emperor,” the annual tolling of bells to commemorate the fall of Constantinople, and the construction of new, distant churches dedicated to Aghia Sophia. These manifestations of power were more subtle, but intertwined in many ways, with the long-held dream of re-constituting the oikoumene. Thus, the recent political move to convert the church from a museum back into a mosque not only manifests a political ideology that is anti-Orthodox (and, by extension, anti-Greek), but also attacks a dream that is maintained by many who still view Constantinople as a lost capital. I think it also important to recognize that this is not the only Aghia Sophia that has been targeted by the current Turkish government. Aghia Sophia in Nicaea (Iznik) was the site of an ecumenical council and the location of the coronation of a Byzantine ruler in diaspora. Similarly, Aghia Sophia in Trebizond (Trabzon) was one of the most important buildings for rulers who established a diaspora empire on the Black Sea. The conversion of these churches from museums to mosques in 2011 and 2013, preceding the conversion of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople, is not accidental, but is an attempt at cultural erasure. 

AM: Expressed as territorial disputes, regional tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean concern a great number of political and economic issues, including, on many levels, population mobility throughout the region as refugees map their ways to better futures. In this context, the reconversion of Aghia Sophia acts as a commentary on the notion of sanctuary. While international figures and authorities have responded to the reconversion by asking that the site remains accessible to all, as it was during its operation as a museum, two questions arise about this point: Which, if any, has been the greatest sanctuary historically – religion or art? And which one is easier to defend now? 

SG: For a Byzantinist, this is a difficult question to answer since religion and art were rarely separated in the medieval East. Although organizations in a secular world would argue for the protection of the church’s art – specifically its important mosaic portraits of rulers and icons of holy figures – recent changes to the building (such as the addition of carpets in the nave) have substantially altered the transformative effects that were created by the building’s shape and decoration. And yet, we should remember that even when Aghia Sophia functioned as a museum, a modern viewer could never experience the intended spiritual impact of the Great Church, which was not a hollow architectural shell, but a vessel for chant, incense, and performative actions.  

AM: You have focused a great part of your work on the continuity of everyday and religious rituals, so I want to ask you about the practice of history as the everyday: The Turkish state has offered the argument that Aghia Sophia belongs to its people, and it has the right to decide unilaterally on its function and character. The counterargument has been, of course, that the monument belongs to its history. When does that happen? When does history crystallize, and how can artwork be expected to actively survive, to evolve, if it is only allowed to reflect one aspect of it? 

SG: The monument belongs to history. Of course, the Turkish government is the current caretaker and must act in the building’s best interest. Beyond preserving the building’s mosaic or marble decoration, there are structural issues that are of enormous concern, for example, the building’s ability to withstand earthquakes. In the challenge of addressing and presenting the cultural phases of standing monuments, however, Turkey is not alone. Nearly every Mediterranean city is constructed above numerous historical layers and contains the remains of buildings that have had multiple phases and functions. The Parthenon, for example, had a much longer life as a Christian church, yet it is the ancient phase of the building’s past that is emphasized for the visitor and on which higher value is placed. The challenge is to honor the past, respect the present, and preserve for the future.   

AM: You have lived in Greece for significant periods of time, and you are well acquainted with modern Greek life. What is the relevance of Aghia Sophia for the average Greek? Why does it mean something to them, and what is that something, exactly? 

SG: In many ways, the building symbolizes the endurance of Greek Orthodoxy and the sustained dream of the oikoumene. The building is of critical importance to a culture that values both its ancient past and its Orthodox faith. Even though there are many, many important Byzantine churches in Greece (and even ones dedicated to Aghia Sophia), there is no church outside of Constantinople that is of such importance or holds such symbolic value. And while most Greeks – and Greek Americans – have never entered the building, they are well aware of its importance and what its loss means. This connection is reified in the naming of so many churches of the Hellenic diaspora as St. Sophia – in Washington, DC, in Los Angeles, in Albany, NY, etc.  While the churches are dedicated to Christ as Holy Wisdom, of course, the connections to Aghia Sophia in Constantinople are intentional and meaningful. 

AM: Is there a danger to the artwork posed by the reconversion of Aghia Sophia? 

SG: I wish I could answer this question. Thus far, the coverings used on the ground floor do not pose a danger to the imperial portraits and the icon of the Virgin and Child in the apse. We do not yet know how the imperial images in the gallery or the beautiful image of the Deesis will be covered. I am concerned about the paintings in the Chora Monastery, which are far more delicate. Following work outside the building to create shops and restaurants to accommodate tourists, a situation was created where water more easily seeped into the building, which has a damaging effect on the frescoes. Thus, even before the conversion of the building, the frescoes were already threatened. Fortunately, many scholars – including Turkish scholars – are monitoring what is happening in the two buildings and are providing updates on social media. 

AM: The Byzantine Empire collapsed into the same question that defines current disputes: Culturally and politically, where is the East/West boundary? 

SG: I don’t find the terms East and West to be useful in the modern world and, in the case of Byzantium, the boundary between ‘East’ and ‘West’ was extremely porous and constantly shifting.  

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