At the beginning of January 1921, a special service was held in the cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, with Orthodox and Episcopal clergy offering prayers in six languages—Hungarian, Greek, Arabic, Russian, Serbian, and English—for the restoration of Hagia Sophia as a Christian sanctuary. As reported in the New York Times, the enormous church was filled to capacity for the service, with hundreds of would-be worshippers turned away at the doors. Similar services were held simultaneously in Washington, St. Louis, Detroit, Newark, Philadelphia, and Chicago.
How could a distant building in the capital of the Ottoman Empire hold a central place in the American imagination? The early decades of the twentieth century were rife with international conflict and disaster—the Balkan Wars (1912-13), World War I (1914-18), and the Turkish War of Independence (1919-23). The general public rarely understood the complexities and nuances of the conflicts. It was much easier to encapsulate them in powerful symbolism—indeed, ever since its construction in the sixth century, Hagia Sophia has received a multitude of symbolic readings. Still, nowadays it is difficult to imagine such a global response to a single building. It is similarly difficult today to fathom the political impact Christianity had across Europe and America throughout the nineteenth century, particularly in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. In these discussions, Hagia Sophia emerged as the Christian equivalent of the Wailing Wall—a universal symbol of lost heritage to people of faith.
Alas, present-day responses to the reconversion also have been primarily from a religious perspective—Christian vs. Muslim—as cultural heritage takes a back seat to heavy-handed political maneuvering.
The American interdenominational prayer services of 1921 came as a response to the British movement known as the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association, founded in 1864. An 1877 article in the New York Times began, “How soon will the crescent over the minarets of St. Sophia be replaced by the cross, or how soon the minarets themselves will be entirely swept away, leaving the outlines of the church in their ancient condition, no seer has foretold.” The same article notes the longstanding belief among the Greeks, “not altogether discredited by the Turks,” that the building would be restored to Christianity. As Ottoman control of its European territories crumbled, the restoration of Hagia Sophia to Christianity was a strongly-held hope and widely-felt belief.
One of the correspondents whose name turns up again and again—and regularly in reference to Hagia Sophia—is William T. Ellis, a fervent Presbyterian from Swarthmore, PA, whose weekly Sunday School lessons were syndicated. As a newspaper correspondent for the New York Herald, he traveled widely, in Bible Lands, as well as in Russia in 1917 to observe the Bolshevik revolution, followed by Cairo and Constantinople, and ultimately Paris for the Peace Conference. As might be expected, there is little distinction in his writings between religious doctrine and reportage. On 10 December 1910, he published the International Sunday School Lesson on the Crucifixion, which was widely distributed by the American press. For him it was a quick leap from the Crucifixion, to the sign of the Cross, to the wish for a cross atop Hagia Sophia:
The Turkish problem, which engrosses the attention of European diplomats and is intertwined with the future of Greece, Crete, Bulgaria, Servia, Montenegro, and Roumania—not to mention the nationalities under Turkish dominion—is essentially a problem of Islam versus Christianity. Greeks, Russians, Armenians and Syrians see it all typified in the cross coming back to the mosque of St. Sophia in Constantinople … For nearly five centuries it has been in the hands of the Moslems. But the belief is strong in millions of hearts that ‘the cross is coming back.’ When it does, the Turkish empire will have fallen.
These are strange sentiments to be expressed in a Sunday School lesson, but they demonstrate how religion and politics were inextricably intertwined.
With the penetration of Bulgarian forces into Ottoman Thrace during the second Balkan War, anything seemed possible, and the conquest of Edirne was taken as a prelude to the conquest of Constantinople, the liberation of Hagia Sophia, and the triumph of Christianity. As Bulgarian troops advanced in the fall of 1912, the New York Times published a long article captioned, “Bulgars May Plant Cross on St. Sophia. Byzantine Edifice, where their forefathers were made Christians, goal of fighters.” The report is much more concerned with popular sentiment than with military strategy, troop movements, or even the basic facts on the ground. Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria was said to have prepared his regalia for a triumphal entry into the city, to be followed by mass in Hagia Sophia, envisioning himself as Emperor of a united Christian East. None of this came to pass; by July the Bulgarian army was in retreat, both armies decimated by a horrific outbreak of cholera. And then World War I began.
Following the end of the war, as the Peace Conference was meeting in Versailles, ardent philhellenes across England formed the St. Sophia Redemption Committee, supported by major political figures of the day, including nine Members of Parliament. Its manifesto reads in part, “If, for no selfish ends and regardless of the cost, she [England] now proceeds to set the Cross again upon the dome of the great church, she will kindle a beacon of peace and of progress which will change the face of the earth and the ways of men.” The tone of the group was decidedly pro-Greek and anti-Turkish, pro-Christian and anti-Muslim. For many, the hope of the Peace Conference was to drive the Turk out of Europe once and for all.
After 1922, the discussions about the religious fate of Hagia Sophia cease, and there is virtually no mention of the church vs. mosque controversies in the reports of the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923, as the Kemalist regime gained control of the city. On 24 November 1934, the same day that Mustafa Kemal was proclaimed Atatürk, the Turkish Council of Ministers decreed that the building should be a museum:
Due to its historic significance, the conversion of Ayasofya Mosque, a unique architectural monument of art, located in Istanbul, into a museum will please the entire Eastern world; and its conversion to a museum will cause humanity to gain a new institution of knowledge.
We may never know the chain of events that ultimately led Mustafa Kemal to this decision. Was this a compromise with the Allied forces, or simply part of his vision for a Westernized republic?
Through its rich history, Hagia Sophia has become deeply embedded in competing narratives of national, regional, religious, and cultural history. As a part of its human rights policy, UNESCO has attempted to define both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of humanity deemed worthy of protection. With a monument as symbolically loaded as Hagia Sophia, there is always a danger of accepting a majority narrative that would silence all other histories. Selective readings of cultural heritage can effectively erase historical memory and sever links with the past. As a monument on the world stage, Hagia Sophia has become a repository of many collective memories. It should be allowed to maintain multiple meanings, to resonate with multiple narratives and multiple histories for its many diverse audiences.
Feature image: Inside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by Jeison Higuita via Unsplash.