The Hagia Sophia is one of the world’s most recognised and beautiful buildings. It is deservedly a Unesco World Heritage site.
I have yet to visit the truly extraordinary city of Istanbul and to walk inside this magnificent architecture along the narrows of the Bosphorus. I have dreamed of wandering along its marble floors, admiring the mosaics and being entranced by the dome above. This Museum is no more.
Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has decided to change the Hagia Sophia. A Turkish Court has given the green light for annulling the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum and to turning it once more into a Mosque. The Hagia Sophia has been a museum for nearly a century. Beforehand it was a Mosque. The Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453 saw the building converted from a church into a Mosque. Prior to the Ottoman invasion, the Hagia Sophia stood as a Christian Church for almost 1,000 years.
President Erdogan has signalled that “Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims”.
The first Muslim prayers will return to the Hagia Sophia on July 24th.
To be clear, I am not arguing against museums being transformed into mosques. There is another and more significant point to highlight about this historic decision. The return of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque illustrates the shifting cultural confidence around the world in 2020.
For 3,000 years Istanbul has stood at the world’s crossroads; it is where East meets West. For millennia this ancient city has witnessed civilisations rise and fall. While Turkey is no longer considered one of the world’s great powers, its geographical location remains significant. More so, the Hagia Sophia is symbolic of the global fault lines between East and West, and between Islam and cultural Christianity.
Turkey is but one of a growing number of States who are observing a fractured, disillusioned, and weakened West. The United States, Europe, the United Kingdom, and even Australia, are pre occupied with internal culture wars that are quite literally tearing societies apart. Our politics is becoming increasingly divided and schismatic, our public figures are running fast to the extremities of left and right, and cancel culture is ready to devour any who cross the wrong line. What makes this venture more problematic is how the line continually moves. No one knows from one week to the next what the accept orthodoxy is, and yet everyone understands that stepping over this chalk line amounts to reputational suicide. In public discourse there exists little good will and common ground is rare to find. In the space of a few short years, western nations have dismantled their societies more successfully than two World Wars.
Unsurprisingly, this growing tribalism is creating disillusionment with mainstream politics, corporate identity games, and with the higher education sector. When we add a serious pandemic to the equation and the question of Climate Change, it is no wonder people are becoming anxious, depressed, and even despairing of hope itself. Internal fighting doesn’t build strong communities and resilient nations. But like the final days of Rome, the distraction and exhaustion gives others licence to take action.
There is an audible crescendoing confidence to despise Western culture. After all, when the West is itself setting fire to its past, this hardly discourages the rest of the world to embrace Western ideals. It is unlikely that China would be acting so confidently in Hong Kong had this not been the case. And for President Erdogan, the time is ripe for him to reinforce his Islamic credentials and to turn away from the fruits of Europe, which Turkey temporality found itself wanting to enjoy.
Of course, over here in the West the left will blame the right and the right will throw insults at the left. The reality is, in different ways both are responsible. When we pursue wealth at the cost of character, should we be surprised that people eventually object? When sexual identity becomes the primary definition of self worth, should we be shocked when the basic units of community are crushed?
20 years ago the United States was esteemed by most people around the world. Today, many of her own citizens despite her and want her institutions and constitution dismantled. Australia has not faired as negatively as our important ally, but we are not far behind. Our lackadaisical attitude and geographical remoteness has probably saved us from some of the sharpest barbs thus far, but these ‘qualities’ are no long term strategy for survival and prosperity.
I don’t think we can downplay the significance of President Erdogan’s decision. History has turned on the changing Hagia Sophia and may well do so again.
It must be said though, lest we mess up Christian theology and witness, the church is not its building. The Church is the people, the body of Christ who are covenanted to one another and who congregate in the same space for mutual edification, discipleship, and love. A Church can just as successfully meet in a Cathedral as it can in a community hall or family lounge room.
Gospel witness will not suffer as a result of returning this once church building back into a mosque. It does however serve as a reminder for churches to not take for granted the time we have to live and serve and to preach Jesus Christ as Lord.
For Christian Churches, whether in Turkey, Tulsa, Tottenham, or Templestowe, we must reform our ways, putting out trust in Christ and our hope in his Gospel. Churches desperately need Gospel conviction, clarity, and courage. This is not about slowing the rot in the West, but pointing people to the only certain hope there is.
Churches are too often complicate in cultural syncretism and spiritual apostasy. When Churches find themselves too close to the halls of power, the temptation to accommodate is strong. Other churches are desperate to find their place and so will sacrifice almost anything for acceptance.
The historian Tom Holland, who isn’t a Christian, has made this interesting observation about English churches (and the same could be said of Churches here in Australia),
“I see no point in bishops or preachers or Christian evangelists just recycling the kind of stuff you can get from any kind of soft left liberal because everyone is giving that…if they’ve got views on original sin I would be very interested to hear that”.
Whether it is claiming that President Trump is God’s ordained man or suggesting he is the antiChrist, whether it’s worshipping unfettered capitalism or preaching the gospel of progressivism, too often Churches have sold their soul, betrayed Christ, and become the weakling and insipid shells that they are today. Much repentance is required. And praise God for the many churches who remain faithful in word and deed; they are precious to God and are wonderful outposts to eternal things.
Kingdoms come and go. Superpowers are made and they fade or are destroyed. It has always been the case. Buildings are created and they too eventually decay and crumble. According to Jesus Christ, the one entity that will last is his Church.
“ I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18).
It is sad to see the Hagia Sophia morph once again. Knowing what this decision embodies mustn’t be missed. In all this, one thing is certain,
“my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:10-11)