We are in Turkey on an educational tour, looking at the shared Islamic, Christian, and Jewish heritages here.
While we were in Istanbul, that magnificent historical capital for so many centuries, the place that an Ottoman poet called “Peerless, save perhaps for Paradise”, the site simply called “The Abode of Felicity” and as it were the Threshold between heaven and Earth, there was a rally on behalf of Muslims who would like to see the Haghia Sophia restored to a mosque.
In the United States, there are Greek Orthodox groups that would like to see the Haghia Sophia restored to being the original church that it was for many centuries.
Ibrahim Kalin, a senior advisor to the Turkish prime minister, has refuted these speculations, stating:
“Speculation on changing it into a church or a mosque remains speculation.
Hagia Sophia has been open to all visitors from Turkey and around the world and will remain so.”
The current Haghia Sophia was built in 537 as the largest and grandest church in the world at that time. It served as the seat of the Greek Orthodox tradition until the conquest of Istanbul in 1453. From that time until the “reforms” of Ataturk in 1925 it functioned as a mosque. Since the time of Ataturk it functions as a museum, and Turkey’s most popular tourist destination.
The argument for it serving as a museum are numerous, and include that since multiple religious communities want to use it, and they couldn’t be possibly expected to share the building, it is best for it to serve as a secular museum. Yet it is clearly not a secular space to many visitors, Muslims and Christians alike. That explanation goes hand in hand with the ideology that secularism can serve as the only mediator among religious communities, that religion is ultimately a divisive force in diverse societies.
I wonder. And I like to wonder what it would be like to try an experiment whereby Muslims would get to use the Haghia Sophia for Friday prayers today as they did for 500 years. I wonder what it would be like to close the Haghia Sophia for tourists between let’s say noon-2:00 p.m. to prepare it for prayers, the way that mosques like Sultanahmet mosque “the Blue Mosque” and Suleymaniyye close to tourists during prayer time. After that brief interlude on Friday, it would open up again to tourists. And likewise, I wonder what it would be like to have the Haghia Sophia open for a Sunday mass to the Greek Orthodox community.
I wonder. I wonder if it is possible for us as human beings to bring our shared love and affection to mingle, rather than compete in a zero-sum game. I wonder if we are still at an adolescent game of our spiritual development where we need the state to step in, taking the toys away that we cannot agree to share nicely.
I wonder. I wonder about all of our shared religious sites, in Jerusalem, in Istanbul, and elsewhere.
Ultimately, I wonder about us, the human beings inhabiting this tiny blot dot in the vast cosmos, third rock from the sun, one sun among hundreds of billions of suns, among hundreds of billions of galaxies.