Glad you are back, fellow travelers. For our third stop, we will visit the gorgeous and immense Hagia Sophia. Before I left Bakersfield, on my Israel trip, my friend and co-worker Jon said Hagia Sophia would be a magnificent sight to behold—and he was right. Hagia Sophia is a domed monument whose name means “holy wisdom,” originally built as a cathedral in Constantinople in the sixth–century AD (now Istanbul, Turkey). Hagia Sophia is 1,400 years old and has served a cathedral, mosque, and now a museum.
I checked to see what Wikipedia has to say about Hagia Sophia, and here’s the scoop:
Widely known for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture”. It was the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years. The current building was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and was the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site, the previous two having both been destroyed by rioters. The church contained a large collection of holy relics and featured a 15-metre (49 ft) silver iconostasis. Hagia Sophia was the focal point of the Eastern Orthodox Church for close to one thousand years.
In 1453, Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II, who ordered this main church of Orthodox Christianity converted into a mosque in May 1453. The bells, altar, iconostasis, and sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed and the mosaics depicting Jesus, his Mother Mary, Christian saints and angels were also removed or plastered over. Islamic features—such as the mihrab, minbar, and four minarets—were added. It remained a mosque until 1931, when it was closed to the public for four years. It was re-opened in 1935 as a museum by the Republic of Turkey. Hagia Sophia is currently the second-most visited museum in Turkey, attracting almost 3.3 million visitors annually. The Hagia Sophia served as inspiration for many other Ottoman mosques, including the Blue Mosque.
I grieve the loss of the original purpose of Hagia Sophia, once the focal point for the Eastern Orthodox Church and now a dusty museum. It especially disturbs me that the clergy and congregation were attacked and conquered, and the church building was taken over by the Turks and converted into a place for them to worship their god. Horrible to think even the valued items used for worship—the bells, altar, and other vessels taken away, the mosaics with Jesus, Mother Mary, Christian saints, and angels were covered up or removed.
Even with the tragic history of losses, our experience in Hagia Sophia was a holy experience compared to the previous mosque. Although the items used for worship of God had been removed and holy paintings covered up, the presence of God has obviously remained. Now a museum, the surroundings were frozen in time and seemed to be in an identity crisis, with the Islamic features attempting to cover the holy mosaics; some have managed to peek through the peeling plaster, and better yet, God’s presence still remains.
How could a 1,000-year-old Cathedral be conquered by its enemy and lose everything? What if the religious leaders of that day had been prepared and planned for the attack; would history have been different? Once back in my seat on the tour bus, I delved into a heartfelt prayer time of contemplation about this tragic turn of events.
God showed me a parallel to my own spiritual life. In my private, personal walk with Christ, I must be brutally honest with myself and especially with God. A few careless choices, my guard lowered, defenses down, I could suffer the dire consequences of being conquered by my arch enemy—Satan, the accuser of the brethren, the father of lies. It can happen to me or any Christ follower, at any time, unless we stay alert. We must continue to remember God’s loving plan for us, stand firm in our authority in Christ because we are secure in our identity in Christ. We must not let our enemy gain ground, defeat, or even conquer us.
Let’s pray Psalm 25:1–5 together: “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God. Do not let me be put to shame, nor let my enemies triumph over me. No one whose hope is in you will ever be put to shame, but they will be put to shame who are treacherous without excuse. Show me your ways, O Lord, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. Remember, O Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old.”
Tomorrow’s stop: Spice Market and Grand Bazaar!