Hagia Sophia: Theocracy in the Age of (Post-)Secularisation

Yesterday at dawn, July 24 2020, Muslim prayers resounded in Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia for the first time since the great domed building’s secularisation on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, “founding father” of modern Turkey, in 1935. Its eighty-five years as a museum will be over.

Outside Turkey, the change in Hagia Sophia’s status has caused dismay. Within it, it has been presented as a blow both for Turkey and for Islam. In his address marking the building’s de-secularisation a fortnight ago, Turkish President Recep Erdogan vividly evoked the original Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Fatih Sultan Mehmet Khan … heads directly to Hagia Sophia. The Byzantine people are waiting for their fate in Hagia Sophia with fear and curiosity. Fatih enters Hagia Sophia … he makes a prostration and prays … he has turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque.


Gentile Bellini’s celebrated portrait of Ottoman conquerer Mehmet II Fatih

Thus, Erdogan invited Turks to see in his decree repossessing the building for Islam a second Ottoman conquest, and in himself a second Fatih. (Indeed, Friday’s prayers will take Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman “revanche” further still, the date, 24th July, coinciding with the anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne renouncing Ottoman territories beyond the borders of modern Turkey, including the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina that had secured the Ottomans’ title as both Sultan and Caliph, deputy of the Prophet of God.)

Having served as the “Great” Church of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for nine hundred years, Hagia Sophia’s 1453 conversion into a mosque brought about the loss to Orthodox Christians of a place of worship of unique significance. Falling foul of Islam’s ban on images, centuries-old mosaics of Christ, the Virgin, archangels, saints, and Byzantine emperors were either destroyed or covered with plaster. Only Ataturk’s transformation of Hagia Sophia into a museum restored them to public view.


A mosaic of Christ the Universal Rule (Christ Pantocrator) from inside the Hagia Sophia

Apparently, Erdogan’s “second conquest of Constantinople” represents no threat to this heritage. A combination of lighting and curtains will be used to cover the Christian images while Muslim prayers take place, and then expose them again for visiting tourists when prayers have ended.

Significant, therefore, is less the fact of Hagia Sophia’s restoration as a place of worship than the special symbolism encoded in it as one. For centuries Hagia Sophia has been not just a building but an idea. This idea is usually represented as that of universal empire, or imperialism. But it is better approached as theocracy – the universal empire of the “One True God” (Hebrew, Christian or Muslim) over human affairs – an idea with which Hagia Sophia’s status since Ataturk as a secular museum has been in direct and intended conflict.

Constructed between AD 532 and 537 in an area of Constantinople (the “ruling City” of the Christian Eastern Roman Empire) badly damaged in the “Nika Riot” of 532, Hagia Sophia (the “Cathedral of the Holy Wisdom”) was in its immediate historical context a reassertion both of Imperial power against the mob and of the personal right to rule of the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-61) who ordered its construction.

But from the beginning Hagia Sophia laid claim to a meta-historical meaning, too. Though the Roman Empire had been nominally Christian for almost two centuries when Justinian became emperor, a specifically Christian reckoning with the origins of Rome’s power had not yet been made. Instead, a public Christian culture lay like a blanket over the fundamentally civic and “pagan” regime that Christian East Rome (“Byzantium”) had inherited from classical antiquity.

According to the classical Roman regime, the imperium, the emperor’s unconditional power of command, was seen as welling up from below, from the Senate and plebs, via the magistracies of the old Roman Republic. Inspired, it seems, by the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, however, Justinian recognised that in an authentically Christian regime, power (the imperium) had to be understood as descending from above, as the gift of God himself.

Thus, in 535, while Hagia Sophia was still under construction, Justinian rectified the anomaly with his famous Sixth Novella. It can be read as proclaiming the Empire’s new Christian “constitution”.

“The priesthood (sacerdotium) and the empire (imperium)”, his new law announced, “are the two greatest gifts which God, in His infinite clemency, has bestowed upon mortals. Of these, the former attends to Divine matters, while the latter presides over and directs human affairs. Both proceed from the same principle and adorn the life of mankind.”

Not the Senate’s conferring of the Principate on the first Roman emperor, Octavian-Augustus, but the Christian God’s election of the shepherd boy David as King of Israel in the Hebrew Book of Kings, it seems, was Justinian’s inspiration.

This shift in the imaginative footing of Rome’s constitution Hagia Sophia represented in stone.

Certainly, the building’s vast dome, which both imitates and exceeds that of the Roman Pantheon, appropriates to Constantinople, the “Second Rome”, the glory of the “first” Rome and its claim to universal earthly, political dominion. And in this Hagia Sophia certainly stood for imperialism. Positioned on a finger of land between the Bosporus and the Golden Horn, Hagia Sophia looks both East and West.


The massive internal volumes of the Hagia Sophia, remarkable in 527 and still remarkable today

But in its box-like dimensions Hagia Sophia also appealed to Christian representations of the cosmos as a cube, for which the Old Testament Ark of the Covenant was interpreted as a biblical allegory. In this sense, Hagia Sophia claimed the legacy of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem as the “footstool” of the One True God of the Hebrews – Incarnate, of course, in Christian belief, in the God-Man Jesus Christ.

Thus, the sixth-century historian Procopius of Caesarea, who witnessed Justinian’s reign first hand, resorted to quasi-biblical language in his description of the great new building.

“The visitor’s mind is lifted up to God and floats aloft”, he said, “thinking that He cannot be far away, but must love to dwell in this place which He himself has chosen”.


Plan and section of the Hagia Sophia – a sophisticated blending of domes and cubes

In this, Hagia Sophia proclaimed that just as God had ruled in Ancient Israel, so now He did so in Byzantium. Still more than the mere continuance in a new Christian key of classical Roman imperialism, Hagia Sophia (God’s symbolic new “footstool” on the Bosphorus) represented the monotheistic “culmination” of antiquity in its interpenetrating spiritual and political dimensions. Indeed, it was this that made Constantinople the prized object of two great but unsuccessful Muslim sieges in 674-8 and 717-18 within the first century of Islam’s birth.

The Ottoman conquest of 1453 changed the nature of the theocracy that Hagia Sophia proclaimed (for Byzantine and Muslim ideas on this were, and are, not identical) but not its fundamental theocratic message. As the Ottoman Sultan was both (universal) temporal ruler and Caliph, Hagia Sophia symbolised not merely the interpenetration of the political and the sacred (as in Byzantium) but their identification.

Alive, therefore, to the symbolism inherent in the great domed building, Ataturk’s 1934 secularisation of Hagia Sophia was a gesture addressed to Muslims, part of his plan for prizing a secular Turkish nation-state from out of the theocratic legacy of the Ottomans. This, not the accommodation of Turkish Christian sentiment, accounts for the building’s career as a museum.


The exterior of the Hagia Sophia. The four minarets (prayer towers) were added after 1453

Of course, since he first came to power as prime minister in 2003, and in his subsequent career as president, the whole tenor of Erdogan’s Kemalist regime has been to unwind the secularism of Ataturk’s Turkish State, spreading a neo-Ottoman blanket over the regime he inherited.

But it would be incorrect to interpret the change in Hagia Sophia’s status as arising only from Turkish politics, or baser human motives alone. Given its charged value as a symbol of the “rights of God” in world history, its rebirth as a house of religion is emblematic of the post-secular era which much of the world appears to be entering.

This is evident across the greater Black Sea region and its hinterland, which has long stood in Hagia Sophia’s shadow. In Hungary, which for centuries saw itself as Christian Europe’s bulwark against the Ottomans, President Viktor Orban has declared his intention of preserving Hungary’s identity as a specifically Christian nation. In Poland (which historically aspired to command the entire Baltic-Black Sea intermarum), President Andrzej Duda, who has emphasised Poland’s Catholic roots, marked his recent re-election with a visit to a Catholic shrine in Poland’s south whose icon of the Virgin is venerated as “Queen of Poland”. In the Caucasus, too, religion has bounced back vigorously since the collapse of Communism; in Georgia, where 89 per cent of the population identifies as Orthodox, a movement to restore what Georgians consider the world’s oldest Orthodox monarchy is driven by Patriarch Ilia II.

But the most obvious parallel is Russia, where 35,000 churches have been built or rebuilt since the collapse of Communism, the Russian Orthodox Church again enjoys access to the army, schools, and hospitals, and the Kremlin regularly identifies Orthodoxy as the foundation of the Russian State historically. (Among the justifications Russian President Vladimir Putin gave for Russia’s annexation of Crimea was that, as the site of the Christian baptism of the first Rus prince, the peninsula was Russia’s “Temple Mount”.)

While, for the Church’s part, Patriarch Kirill has held up precisely the Byzantine “symphony” of “priesthood” and “kingship” as a model for modern Church-State relations, changes approved by popular vote last month mark the State’s formal acknowledgement of God in Russia’s previously expressly secular constitution.

Indeed, while the Russian Orthodox Church has vigorously protested Hagia Sophia’s rededication as a mosque, the restoration to it of church properties seized and secularised by Soviet authorities has provoked protests in Russia, most notoriously so in the case of St Petersburg’s St Isaac’s Cathedral, a massive, bronze-domed, neo-Byzantine building transformed in Communist times into a museum of gravity and applied physics. (Bowing to these protests, the Church has not pressed its claim to the building, which, legally, remains a museum.)


St Isaac’s Cathedral, St Petersburg. Like the Hagia Sophia, it has a complex history of secularisation

Seen from this angle, Ataturk’s transformation of Hagia Sophia into a museum was but one act in a great wave of secularisation that swept the world in the aftermath of the Great War and Russian Revolution (which among other things brought the world’s first self-declared atheist regime to power). Breaking over the West’s previously God-fearing middle classes in the 1960s, this wave of secularism for decades brought about collapsing church attendance and religious identification everywhere.

Symbolically, therefore, Hagia Sophia’s de-secularisation is a powerful statement that the wave of secularisation that defined the twentieth century may now be in reverse. Some will dismiss this as a fantasy: the only relationship in modernity between politics and religion is one of separation. But is it the revival of religious identities that is a mirage, or was that the previous “age of secularisation”?

If history’s answer proves to be the latter, then we are left with the conclusion that it was Hagia Sophia’s career as a museum that was the anomaly. The only way to have prevented Hagia Sophia’s reconversion into a mosque would have been its restoration to its original purpose as a church.

Indeed, while the twentieth century might suggest that the advance of secularism – the withdrawal of God from the public domain history to the private realm of individual conscience – is one of the “iron laws” of human history, it says much about how deceptively recent a phenomenon secularisation is that the restoration of Hagia Sophia to Christian worship was a more recent historical possibility than it might seem.

In Russia, the Byzantine conception of political power as descending from God survived down to the Revolution. Indeed, at the centre of the Russian war plan for 1917 was the occupation of Constantinople, an event that would have seen the realisation of the age-old Russian dream of restoring the cross to Hagia Sophia’s dome.

As we know, however, rather than inaugurating a new “Byzantine period” in Russian history, 1917 inaugurated instead a Bolshevik one. Rather than the vindication of the theocratic principle, the outcome of the Great War appeared to bury it for ever.

Sergei Bulgakov, an adult “convert” from Marxism to Orthodoxy who as an émigré in Paris would gain recognition as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Orthodox theologians, gave expression to the disappointment this engendered. Even without bringing the Bolsheviks into it, Bulgakov questioned the place of Hagia Sophia in Russian war aims once Nicholas II was gone.

“With the revolution, all my hopes collapsed at once”, Bulgakov put it in his 1918 dialogue “At the Feast of the Gods”: “Really, what the devil would I do with Constantinople [Tsargrad, as the Russians called it] without a Tsar? Am I supposed to go there with Papa Miliukov and dear Kerenskii? Better let the Turkish Sultan sit there with … the protectors of ancient Islamic piety.”


Sergei Bulgakov

Members of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party, Pavel Miliukov and Aleksandr Kerenskii, were celebrated in Russia and abroad for their role in the downfall of Tsarism. Like most liberals, they took the separation of Church and State, the sacred and the political, for granted. But Bulgakov’s point was that precisely this made the Great War and Russian Revolution events of meta-historical significance. With them, in 1917, the theocratic ideal in its original Christian Byzantine form passed out of history forever, to be survived, in the Ottoman Empire, only by its Muslim successor. Only within a regime that conceives of itself as a theocracy, he was saying, could Hagia Sophia’s meta-historical meaning as an expression in stone of the theocratic principle of Abrahamic (Jewish, Christian, and Muslim) monotheism be revealed; in any other, it fails to become more than just another historical building. And so, in 1935, it became.

Unwilling spectator of an age of secularisation about which he entertained deep misgivings, Bulgakov believed he was witnessing the definitive demise of the theocratic ideal. When Friday prayers again ring out in Hagia Sophia, we, citizens of an increasingly post-secular age, may find ourselves witnesses of perhaps the most powerful symbol yet of its unexpected revival.

Dr Matthew Dal Santo

Dr Matthew Dal Santo is a writer, historian and foreign affairs commentator who currently resides in Copenhagen, Denmark. Born in Sydney, Matthew lived most of the past fifteen years in Europe. The current focus of his interest is Russia. From 2014 to 2017, Matthew was Danish Research Council Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen, with a grant to study how Russians think of themselves in the light of their history 25 years after the collapse of Communism and 100 since the 1917 revolution. He is particularly interested in how the revival of Orthodoxy has encouraged the return of the age-old idea of ‘Holy Rus’ as well as rehabilitation of the culture and achievements of Imperial Russia, as for example in the canonisation in 2000 of the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family as saints.


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