Christianity and Islam are siblings. Like most siblings, they spend a lot of time fighting bitterly, but they can also collaborate in a spirit of tolerance and even love. So I was very pleased to see this in Istanbul last week, in the Ayasofya museum (Greek Hagia Sophia, “Holy wisdom”).
Hagia Sophia was built in 537, and for nearly a thousand years it was the cathedral church of the Orthodox patriarch, and main church of what was the eastern Roman empire until the fall of the western empire, following which it was the Roman empire. It was captured by the Franks during the fourth crusade, and was a Catholic church for half a century until it reverted to the Orthodox.
When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, it was re-named Istanbul, and became the seat of the Ottoman sultans; Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. It remained as a mosque for nearly half a millennium until the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1923, when it became a museum. According to our guide Suleiman, both Muslims and Christians demanded the building, but the president of the new Turkish republic said, “No, it’s mine now; if you want to visit, you can buy a ticket like everyone else.” And a museum it remains.
The Turkish republic was established as a secular and democratic constitutional republic, and so it has remained. Although it has problems, it seems to have avoided the worst excesses of violence and repression which trouble so much of the Middle East, although there seem to be voices now who wish to push back to a more religious and intolerant society.
But tolerance didn’t begain with the Turkish republic, as the picture shows. When the Muslims captured the Christian capital, it is not hard to believe that voices would be raised demanding the demolition of this iconic Christian church. Instead, it was converted into a mosque, with the minimal changes. Mosaics showing the face of Jesus were covered up by calligraphy showing the names of Allah, and crosses were elaborated into geometric patterns; but a lot of things remain in place.
In particular, the Christians prayed towards Jerusalem, the Muslims towards Mecca; the directions are a few degrees different, but evidence of both remains, as the picture shows.
In what seems to me to be a related story, Suleiman showed us this:
The picture shows a marble slab carved with dolphins and trident, symbols of the Greek god Poseidon. Suleiman said that three explanations have been offered for the presence of this pagan symbol. They may all have some truth to them; take your pick.
- The church was built in the very short period of five years, and a huge quantity of marble and other building material was required in a very short time. The was no time to quarry enough, so old Greek temples were plundered for material.
- The picture was re-interpreted as a Christian symbol. The letters of the Greek word for “fish” are the initial letters of the proclamation of faith, and the trident symbolises the Trinity.
- The Roman empire had been made Christian by Constantine (who also founded Constantinople) not very long before; many people were still pagan at heart, or at least respected pagan symbols as a kind of insurance policy.