Friday, June 09, 2006


Hagia Sophia

This will probably be my last travel-log post about my recent trip to Turkey. It will also be the hardest to write because I am going to deal with some very abstract concepts. I'll try not to ramble.

I will also not respond to those wishing to call me names or who complain about my lack of sensitivity to Muslims in this regard. So, save the hate mail. I won't respond to it.

It is amazing to me how close the emotions of love, hate, joy and bitterness often stand to each other in our conscience. I find the ability to rapidly slide from one to the other to be one of the more uncomplimentary facets of the human condition.

I ran into this while in the Hagia Sophia. While looking at the remnants of the beautiful mosaics and frescoes as well as the magnificent dome and the truly monumental proportions of the church I was struck with what a travesty the Ottomans perpetrated on my culture when they overran the Byzantines. Let us be frank, the Ottomans invaded and conquered a culture that had existed for nearly 1000 years in its Roman form and much longer as a conglomeration of Greek speaking peoples. As a culture, the Byzantines were superior to the Ottomans in almost every way except the ability to wage the most cruel and barbaric form of war. This doesn't mean that the Byzantines were perfect, far from it, but there is no doubt that the Turks simply stole a country from people who had lived there for millennia and who were culturally and spiritually their superiors.

The Turks then set about destroying all the references to that culture they'd conquered and apparently designed mosque to resemble Orthodox churches. They plastered over they tore down, they changed the language and while slightly more tolerant than the Fatmids in Egypt they forced many to convert to Islam at the point of a sword. The accounts of the atrocities committed upon the people of Constantinople after its fall are difficult for me to read.

The Turks even changed the names of cities so that the Greek heritage of the area was lost or at least submerged beneath a forced veneer of Turkish colored paint. The palace of the last Sultan is a tourist attraction. I don't think the Germans do tours of Adolph Hitler's house. If they do they approach it very differently and the Sultan was a ruthless dictator.

Much of the New Testament was written to churches in what is now Turkey. Much of the best of ancient civilization was preserved by the Byzantines. The Renaissance in Western Europe was possible not because of anything done by the Arabs as is often stated but because the Byzantines had never lost the knowledge of antiquity and Byzantine teachers were hired by Italian merchants and princes to educate their children. The Byzantines were the only state besides China to make the transition from antiquity to the middle ages. Far from being a culture in decline they remained until almost the end, a vibrant culture though reduced in size and influence.

I simply broke down and wept in the Hagia Sophia. I found myself weeping over the loss of what is without doubt, my cultural inheritance. I wept because it is a lie that the plaster over the frescoes preserved the art in the church. The art would have been better preserved if the Hagia Sophia was a working church as it had been for 800 years before the Ottomans converted it into a mosque. I wept and had to quickly leave before I collapsed on the floor. I went outside and waited near the gate for the rest of my group. Outside in the bright sunlight I was able to regain my composure and calm my soul.

Outside I was able to forgive both my myself and the 15th century Ottomans and I sat there and enjoyed the wonderful Saturday morning sun. I waited about 15 or 20 minutes for the rest of my group.

I had to struggle to remember those who committed this great crime are not the same people who are living in Turkey today. I do not hold children responsible for the crimes of their fathers. That said, I don't think that the Turks are able to stand emotionally far enough away from their history to be able to understand why the Hagia Sophia was simultaneously the one thing in Turkey that I felt I must see and the one thing I so dreaded to see.

Other Western nations are somewhat ashamed or at least speak in sheepish tones of their Imperial past and especially the crimes their ancestors committed in the name of their nation. I didn't see that in Turkey. As I said earlier I think that the Turks are still standing too close to their history to see how some of the things they've done look to others. I should also say that the Turks I met were friendly, polite and generally good people. I'd live in Turkey before I'd live in France or Germany or the UK. But, I still had to struggle to not hate the Turks on that day for what their ancestors did to my culture. It is a struggle I won, at least on that day.

I am grateful to the Turkish government for the restoration that is occurring in the Hagia Sophia. I am grateful that they have turned it into a museum. It will only become more spectacular in the future.

I'm planning to return to Turkey someday

I am praying that the Gospel may one day be proclaimed again from the pulpit of the Hagia Sophia.

Until Next Time
Fai Mao
The Philo-Byzanto Blogger

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