Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Hagia Sophia: A Remarkable Depiction of Religious Co-existence

Last summer I spent a few weeks studying abroad in Turkey. We spent the last few days of the trip sightseeing around Istanbul and one of the stops on our tour of the city was the Hagia Sophia (pronounced Aya Sophia), the huge ancient building pictured above.

A Brief History Lesson: The Hagia Sophia was initially an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and was built around 537 under the orders of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. It served as a Christian place of worship until 1453 when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople under Sultan Mehmed II, at which point it was converted into an Islamic mosque. The mosaics picturing Jesus, Mary, and the various Christian Saints and angels were plastered over and traditional Islamic features, such as the tall minarets and the mihrab, were added to the building. The Hagia Sophia continued to serve as a mosque until 1931 when it was closed to the public; it was converted into a museum and reopened in 1935.

Why am I telling you all of this? Because this building fascinates me. You see, when they converted the Hagia Sophia into a museum, they removed the plaster from the walls that had covered up the Christian paintings. They restored aspects of the old Christian basilica that the building had initially served as, without removing the later Islamic additions. And the result is an absolutely gorgeous blending of two cultures that I doubt exists anywhere else in the world. Within the walls of the Hagia Sophia paintings of Christian angels fly just above the Islamic divine names and scriptures painted in golden Arabic calligraphy. Christian Saints decorate the walls of the room in which the elaborate mihrab sits, marking the direction of Mecca for Islamic prayer.

Within the walls of the Hagia Sophia, the traditions and history of two warring cultures has collided to create something truly beautiful. The Christian and Islamic traditional decor do not clash here the way the people of these faiths do around the world; they compliment each other to create something remarkable. And maybe it is just my literary geared mind, but I cannot help but see the Hagia Sophia as a living metaphor for what kind of world we might be able to build if only people of different faiths and cultures would start recognizing each other as people instead of others. It is tragic how much of human history has been wasted on wars of religion, on demonizing those who call God by a different name, on destroying whole civilizations and wiping out entire populations in the name of a book. And if there is a God, I cannot imagine that this is what s/he wanted the world they created to become. Just imagine what we could accomplish if we weren't so busy killing each other; imagine how beautiful a world we could create if only we could learn to coexist. That is what I spent my time walking the halls of the Hagia Sophia thinking about, and what I think about every single time I see these pictures from my trip: if only the people of the world could come together as beautifully as their faiths do within the walls of the Hagia Sophia.

I might not have faith in a god, but I do have faith in people, despite how often I say things to the contrary. I want to believe that some day humanity will grow bored of this nonsense. I want to believe that some day people of faith will start practicing the love, compassion, and tolerance that they insist they stand for, that the hatred and fear of differences will become the curse of only a few rather than the epidemic it is today. I refuse to believe that humankind is so simple as to allow blind fear and hatred to keep us paralyzed and stunted. Because the world is a beautiful place filled with amazing people, and we are capable of so much more. 

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