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The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. [Image by: Arild Vågen / CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons, resized]

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Reflections on the Tragedy of the Hagia Sophia

In the Great Church where the holy gifts were revealed, the King of all,

there came to them a voice from heaven, from the mouth of the angels:

'Leave off your psalter, put away the holy gifts.

Send word to the land of the Franks to come and take them:

Let them come and take the golden cross and the holy gospel,

and the holy table, lest it be profaned.'

And when Our Lady heard this, the icons wept:

'Be still, dear Mistress, do not weep, do not cry:

Again with the years, with time, again this place will be yours.'

(Fr. Hugh Barbour, O. Praem., A Latin’s Lamentation Over Gennadios Scholarios, 1998).

With the years, perhaps, with time… but apparently not soon. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued a decree on July 10 ordering the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople’s splendid church built by Emperor Justinian 15 centuries ago, to be reopened for Muslim prayers. Christian mosaics will be covered during prayer. Simultaneously, a top Turkish court annulled the 1934 decree by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, turning it into a museum.

An old dream of Turkey’s Islamists is now coming true. They always regarded Atatürk’s experiment in secularism as a foreign imposition, and the Hagia Sophia’s status as a litmus test. In Erdoğan’s view, an era of humiliation has ended. His gesture is symbolic, and important as a signpost for the country’s future. Neo-Ottomanism is no longer just a strategic project, it is Turkey’s reality and yet another Middle Eastern problem.

Turkey is back as an eminently Islamic power. Erdoğan has every intention of ensuring that she stays that way, as she had been for seven centuries before Mustafa Kemal tried to turn her into a secular republic. Indeed, with the fall of Baghdad to the Tatars in 1258, it seemed that the end of Islam was nigh, but a sturdy race of recently converted barbarians saved the day. Arab historian Ibn Khaldun hailed the rise of the Ottomans as the sign of Allah’s mercy “when the Abbasid state was drowned in decadence and luxury” and overthrown by the heathen Tatars “because the people of the faith had become deficient in energy and reluctant to rally in defense.”

Thus the Ottoman Empire became the standard bearer of Islam. The bearers came to Anatolia at the turn of the second millennium as mercenary soldiers. Osman I, from whom the name Osmanli (“Ottoman”) is derived, proclaimed the independence of his small principality in Söğüt near Bursa, on the border of the declining Byzantine Empire, in the early 13th century, and attracted other tribal leaders to his banner. Within a century, the Osman Dynasty had extended its domains into an empire stretching from Thrace to Mesopotamia. Its growth was but briefly disrupted by the Tatar invasion and Sultan Bayezid’s defeat at the Battle of Ankara in 1402.

THE GREAT CHURCH BECOMES A MOSQUE

Under Mehmed I “the Restorer,” the Turks were on the march again. They conquered a ruined and impoverished Constantinople under Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. Once the last Emperor, Constantine XI, and his badly outnumbered soldiers were slain on the walls, bands of Turks went on a rampage. Pillaging and killing went on for three days. Thousands of civilians were enslaved, soldiers fought over boys and young women. The blood ran in streams down the steep streets toward the Golden Horn. When the Turks burst into the Hagia Sophia, the worshippers were trapped. Sir Steven Runciman portrayed the scene in his 1965 book, The Fall of Constantinople 1453:

A few of the ancient and infirm were killed on the spot; but most of them were tied or chained together.…Many of the lovelier maidens and youths and many of the richer-clad nobles were almost torn to death as their captors quarreled over them.… Anyone who collapsed from frailty was slaughtered, together with a number of infants who were held to be of no value.… The city was now half in ruins, emptied and deserted and blackened as though by fire, and strangely silent.… Churches had been desecrated and stripped; houses were no longer habitable and shops and stores battered and bare. The Sultan himself as he rode through the streets had been moved to tears. 

The Ottoman Empire thus succeeded the Roman one. Some decades later it also succeeded the Arab Caliphate, the mantle of descent from Muhammad, after the conquest of Egypt (1517). Islam may have rejoiced, but there was little cause for rejoicing in Asia Minor and in the Balkans as further Christian communities came under Muslim rule. The conquered populations were duly subjected to the practice of devshirme. That “blood levy” of Christian boys, introduced by Sultan Orhan (1326–1359), consisted of the periodic taking of a fifth of all Christian boys for training as janissaries. The practice left a deep scar on the collective memory of the Balkan Christians, and contributed to their thorough loathing of all things Ottoman that persists to this day. And yet, contemporary Turkish propagandists present the tragedy of the kidnapped boys and their families as the Ottoman equivalent of a full scholarship to Harvard or Yale.

The materially and culturally rich Christian civilization of Byzantium and its dynamic and creative Slavic offspring in Serbia and Bulgaria were destroyed. The Great Betrayal of 1204 was traumatic, but the Byzantine Greeks soon found out that evil was outdone by a greater evil. The difference between the Crusaders’ debauchery and the Turks’ calculated barbarism is visible in the treatment of both subjects by a great painter.

While acknowledging the shame of the “Entry of the Crusaders Into Constantinople” through his 1840 painting of the same name, it was Eugène Delacroix’s depiction of a Turkish monstrosity that became famous. “The_Massacre_of_Chios: Greek families awaiting death or slavery” is a masterpiece of horror depicting the systematic extermination of the entire population of an Aegean island, graphically illustrated how being a Christian in the Ottoman Empire meant living in daily fear of murder, rape, torture, kidnap of one’s children, slavery, and genocide.

(This is part one of a three-part online series in which Professor Trifkovic discusses the history and fate of the Hagia Sophia and Christians under Turkish rule. Read part two, "The Ottoman Zenith," here. )

Srdja Trifkovic

Srdja Trifkovic

Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.

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