mosaic of Constantine IX, detail

About a year ago, someone asked me why I, an Orthodox Christian, decided to pursue a career in Islamic Studies—focusing in particular on Islam in Turkey. I couldn’t answer the question at the time. But a few days ago, I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. I had been following stories in Turkish news over the past few weeks about a hearing at the Turkish high court that would occur that day, where the current Turkish administration was requesting that Hagia Sophia—currently a museum—be turned back into a mosque. I realized, when I got up later that morning and scanned Turkish news, that Hagia Sophia might already have become a mosque again. (At the time of writing, the court has not yet issued its decision.) I couldn’t get back to sleep until I began to write the words below. I also finally had the answer to the question posed to me the previous year.

haghia sophia exterior

I distinctly remember the first time that I saw Hagia Sophia. I had just stepped off a tour bus in Istanbul in the summer of 2002. I was 17 years old at the time. Someone around me said something like, “Look at that huge mosque!” Upon seeing the huge dome so characteristic of Orthodox church architecture, I immediately thought to myself, “That’s a church.” Both reactions are correct. Originally built by the Byzantine Empire as its imperial cathedral, Hagia Sophia—the Church of Holy Wisdom—developed into the historical center of Orthodox Christian religious tradition.

It was later converted into the imperial mosque of the Ottoman Empire after the Ottomans conquered the Byzantine capital in 1453. Known in Turkish as Ayasofya, this same sanctuary then became a key focal point in the development of Turkish Islamic religious tradition, because it served as one of the most prestigious centers of Islamic theology and scholarship in the Ottoman Empire.

After the secular Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the building was declared a museum, legally disassociating it from either Islam or Christianity and ending any formal worship inside the sanctuary.

Not long after that first trip to Istanbul (a city I’ve returned to and lived in many times since), I became a Religious Studies major in college and began to focus on Islam. During those years I got to know some Turkish Muslims and, in ways that I am still trying to understand, I as an Orthodox Christian sensed that I shared something with them that I did not share with other Christians. Turkish Muslims talked about Islam in ways that deeply reminded me of how Orthodox talk about Christianity, and I still feel this affinity whenever I read the great Turkish and Greek theologians of the 20th century. After all, our traditions took shape in the very same place. In fact, they took shape in the very same building—Hagia Sophia. My home parish in Indiana was under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. The little Orthodox community that I grew up in was part of an unbroken chain of Orthodox tradition that stretched all the way back to that great Byzantine sanctuary.

deesis mosaic II

One of the reasons that the issue of Hagia Sophia is so difficult is because it is rooted in the traumas of recent history. The creation of ethnic nation-states across the Balkans in the late 19th and early 20th century was based on the massacre, forced relocation, and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, both Muslim and Christian. The current debate over Hagia Sophia is a consequence of the enduring legacy of such events in the early history of the Turkish Republic.

Many Muslim citizens of Turkey see the issue of Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya) as a reclamation of their religious identity. After suffering catastrophic losses during the First World War, Turkish soldiers and nationalist leaders mobilized to defend the territory of Anatolia from conquest by the Allied Powers. The secular Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, securing the foundations of Turkish independence. But the aggressively secularist and Westernizing policies of the Turkish government throughout the 20th century repressed Muslim religious practice and denigrated Islamic tradition. For many Turkish Muslims now, claiming Ayasofya as a mosque serves to rebuke the legacy of secularist persecution of Muslim piety in Turkey.

Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey see the issue of Hagia Sophia as reflective of a very different experience. In the decade of wars leading up to the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Ottoman and nationalist Turkish forces committed genocide against the Christian inhabitants of Anatolia, including Greek Orthodox, in pursuit of their goal to create an ethnic Turkish state. Continued discrimination against the Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey up to the present day has led to the almost total erasure of this ancient community, the descendants of the civilization that built Hagia Sophia fifteen centuries ago. For Greek Orthodox in Turkey, claiming Hagia Sophia as a church means asserting their continued presence in their homeland that has been violently taken from them over the past hundred years.

In other words, for both Turkish Muslims and Greek Orthodox, Hagia Sophia represents the strength of religious faith in the face of trauma and hardship. Today, when Muslim Turks talk about reclaiming Ayasofya, they are asserting their faith and their independence. When Greek Orthodox talk about reclaiming Hagia Sophia, they are asserting the very same thing, especially given the struggles their community continues to experience as an ethnic minority in Turkey. Hagia Sophia still stands where it has always been, witness to all of these events. Holy Wisdom has watched over the city for some fifteen centuries, accepting the prayers of Muslims and Orthodox alike in their times of trial and suffering.

What I felt the first time I entered Hagia Sophia is the reason I decided to make a career out of teaching and studying Islamic theology and history. I had the profound experience of feeling kinship with people I never expected to, and as a teacher I wanted to help others have this same experience. I found space within myself to appreciate both my own Orthodoxy and the Islam of the Turkish people.

For me, this experience of unity is what the huge, encompassing dome of Hagia Sophia embodies: a space so vast that we can find room in it for all, including those we never realized were part of our story from the very beginning.

Photos from the author’s personal album. Spring 2006.
Also see Dr. Dorroll’s recent Islam from an Orthodox Perspective at Public Orthodoxy.

Phil Dorroll holds a PhD in Religion from Emory University in Atlanta. He is assistant professor of religion at Wofford College in Spartanburg SC and an Orthodox Christian. His work focuses on Sunni Islamic theology in classical Arabic and modern Turkish, and the history of interactions between Orthodox Christianity and Islam. He has written several times for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.

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