by Giles Fraser
Friday, 10
July 2020

The Hagia Sophia is for prayer, not pictures

by Giles Fraser
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. Credit: Getty

When it was built in 537, Hagia Sophia — Greek for Holy Wisdom — was the largest building in the world, not just the largest church. For roughly the first thousand years of its life it was a place of Christian worship, sending prayers upwards to the living God. In 1453, after the city fell to the Ottoman invaders, it became a Mosque, and was so for nearly five hundred years, again sending prayers to the Almighty. In 1935, the secular Turkish state turned it into a museum, and the prayers stopped.

Now I am no particular fan of Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but when it comes to his desire to return this once holy place back to a mosque, I cannot but applaud. There will be those — Greek Orthodox Christians especially — who would prefer it to return to being a Cathedral. Of course, that would be wonderful. But it is never going to happen in a country where Christianity represents a vanishingly small percentage of the population. And so that aspect of the argument is something of a distraction.

The Hagia Sophia was profaned by secularity in 1935. For secularism is not a way for all religions to share the public space peacefully; it is a systematic and deliberate attempt to drive God out of the public square. And if the choice is between a mosque and a museum, then it is no choice at all: the faithful must return to that space and fill it once again with worship.

And to those Christians who believe that Muslims and Christians worship something different, I offer no less an authority than the Pope himself. Ahead of his trip to Morocco last year, the Pope tweeted:

I am coming as a pilgrim of peace and fraternity. We Christians and Muslims believe in God, the Creator and the Merciful, who created people to live like brothers and sisters, respecting each other in their diversity, and helping one another in their needs
- Pope Francis

This view goes back to the Second Vatican Council, where it was affirmed that Muslims, “together with us adore the one, merciful God”. And from the Muslim side, the Quran makes it clear that Muslims worship the same God as the Jews. Jacob, for instance, asks his sons what they will worship once he is dead. And they answer: “We shall worship your God and the God of your fathers, Abraham, Ishmael, and Isaac, one single God: we devote ourselves to Him.”

I am not trying to underestimate the huge theological differences or the violent history that has come between Christians and Muslims. In fact, I think it is precisely because of all this that Christians should remind themselves that Muslims are our brothers and sisters with whom we share a faith in the living God. And this is why Christians should be delighted if, as I hope and expect he will, the Turkish president announces later today that Hagia Sophia will return to being a Mosque. The curse of secularism will be lifted and this holy space will return once again to the praise of Almighty God. Allahu Akbar.

Join the discussion

  • July 15, 2020
    Interesting argument but naive. Erdogan is keeping his voters happy with religious nationalism . It's got nothing to do with spirituality, it's about nationalism and an arid version of state sanctioned Islam. And another slap in the teeth to the Orthodox faith, and, of course to Greece. How... Read more

  • July 14, 2020
    Interesting that you mention Norrmalm/Klara and Kyoto, both destroyed without the ‘excuse’ of previous bombing. Particularly regrettable with Koyoto, which it is said, Henry Stimson specifically prevented from being ‘nuked’ in 1945. One of the joys of travelling in the 50’ and 60’s was... Read more

  • July 14, 2020
    I suppose if I can imagine one impossible thing (time travel) then I can imagine one unlikely thing - being a man of means and leisure in the 1920s and 1930s. But yes, the hotel issue obviously was restrictive. I also envy those who were able to travel among the generation that was born about fifty... Read more

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