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Hagia Sophia, not just a building…

Hagia Sophia exterior

Hagia Sophia’s conversion from a museum into a mosque has seen thousands and thousands of words committed to the page across the globe.

Most of it recycles the same information – that the great church was built in the sixth century under the Byzantine emperor Justinian, that it was converted to a mosque when Mehmed the Conqueror captured Constantinople in 1453 and that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, repurposed it as a museum in 1934.

All this is true but misses so much of the flavour and historical context of this hugely important building.

The tone of much western coverage is pained, as if the Hagia Sophia is somehow part of a European Christian cultural heritage now wrenched away into the dark folds of Islam by a Turkish president with neo-Ottoman delusions.

There can be no doubt that President Erdogan does indeed have his own agenda for converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and his timing is clearly political. It heightens his popularity with his core Islamic supporters at a time when the Coronavirus pandemic is running amok with Turkey’s struggling economy, and provides a welcome distraction. He makes no apology for his actions – and an Optimar poll show 60% of Turks support the move.

The important thing to understand is that the Hagia Sophia – like so many religious buildings – has its own highly political backstory. As ever the architecture reflects the politics in visible form and the current events are but the latest in a long line of twists and turns.

Ethnically diverse

The first church on the site was built in 360, but there is no evidence that it had Christian mosaics on the walls of the type found from the fifth and sixth century onwards. Walls instead were covered with marble revetments, plaster, and painted and gilded stucco in decorative patterns. Constantine denuded virtually every city in the empire of its pagan statuary to adorn Constantinople, his new Rome, just as Justinian scoured the empire for precious marble two centuries later, like the eight green columns from the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, to build Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia marble columns from Ephesus

When the Western Roman Empire and Rome itself collapsed in 476, Constantinople became the largest and wealthiest city in Europe, and the influences upon it were wide and varied, including from the Roman Latin culture, the Egyptian Copts, the Thracians, Macedonians, Illyrians, Bythinians, Carians, Phrygians, Armenians, Lydians, Galatians, Paphlagonians, Lycians, Syrians, Cilicians, Misians, Cappadocians, Persians, and later the Arab Muslims.

Many Europeans call the Byzantine Empire ‘Greek’, when in practice it was very ethnically diverse. Greeks composed a relatively small portion of this multi-ethnic empire, and most Byzantine emperors were not ethnic Greeks.

Justinian was obliged to build the current Hagia Sophia after it was damaged beyond repair by angry crowds protesting his high taxes. According to art historian John Lowden, Justinian was ‘a person of vision and extraordinary energy, both intensely pious and utterly ruthless … his military ambitions matched by his grandiose building programme.’

Reconstructing Hagia Sophia

To re-establish control as quickly as possible, he commissioned two famous architects in 532, both from western Asia Minor, to complete the project with a huge workforce over an intense five-year period. Both ignored numerous stylistic quotations and detailed instructions from the emperor to come up with their own unique creation, universally recognised as the highpoint of Byzantine architecture and admired round the world for the stunning achievement of the central dome.

A very different image is conveyed by the western European Latin manuscript now held in the Vatican Library, in which an enormous Justinian, many times bigger than the Hagia Sophia itself, is seen directing a small, rather nervous-looking mason who is balancing on a ladder.

The inspiration for Hagia Sophia was never Hadrian’s Pantheon, but earlier Eastern traditions. St Simeon’s Basilica, in Syria west of Aleppo, completed in 490, was the largest and most important religious establishment in the world for fifty years before the construction of Hagia Sophia.

It also inspired the UNESCO World Heritage Site basilicas of Ravenna, briefly capital of the Western Roman Empire, where all the bishops up till 425 were Syrian and whose patron saint Apollinaris was a native of Antioch.

Famed across Europe as a site of pilgrimage, the Santiago de Compostela of its day, St Simeon’s could hold 10,000 worshippers, more than Notre-Dame de Paris or the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny.

The heavenly temple

Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world for over a thousand years, a major influence on and inspiration for future religious architecture, both Christian and Muslim. A series of earthquakes caused it to fall in 558, just twenty years after it was completed, by which time Justinian was seventy-six and both architects had died.

Sections of this second dome, completed in 562, collapsed again in 989 and in 1346, but were restored and repaired without material change. It was a remarkable achievement, openly praised by later Ottoman historians—following the typical Byzantine tradition, they used language implying that the architect must have worked in direct union with God, with descriptions of a guardian angel watching over the church.

Even before the Ottoman conquest of the city, Islamic tradition had identified Hagia Sophia as the heavenly temple that the Prophet Muhammad had seen on his nocturnal journey to heaven from Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, which was understood to predestine the church’s conversion to a mosque.

In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, Hagia Sophia suffered the greatest damage in its long history, looted and sacked, along with the whole of Constantinople, thereby consummating a major schism between the Latin and Greek churches—Roman Catholics against Greek Orthodox Christians.

For three days they murdered, raped, looted and destroyed.

The Fourth Crusade

The defeat of Byzantium, already in a state of decline, accelerated political degeneration so that the Byzantines eventually became an easy prey to the Turks. The Fourth Crusade and the crusading movement generally thus resulted, ultimately, in the victory of Islam, a result which was of course the exact opposite of its original intention.

Pope Innocent III, who had unintentionally launched the ill-fated expedition, rebuked them:

“How, indeed, will the church of the Greeks, no matter how severely she is beset with afflictions and persecutions, return into ecclesiastical union and devotion to the Apostolic See, when she has seen in the Latins only an example of perdition and the works of darkness, so that she now, and with reason, detests the Latins more than dogs? As for those who were supposed to be seeking the ends of Jesus Christ, not their own ends, who made their swords, which they were supposed to use against the pagans, drip with Christian blood, they have spared neither religion, nor age, nor sex. They have committed incest, adultery, and fornication before the eyes of men. They have exposed both matrons and virgins, even those dedicated to God, to the sordid lusts of boys. ..They violated the holy places and have carried off crosses and relics.”

The pope’s outrage however did not prevent him accepting the stolen jewels, gold, money and other valuables, and the Church was much enriched as a result. A great deal of this wealth was in turn repurposed into huge building projects throughout Europe— much of it decorates St Mark’s Basilica in Venice and some of it certainly would have helped to finance Europe’s Gothic cathedrals.

Remorse was expressed 800 years later by Pope John Paul II for the events of the Fourth Crusade. Writing to the archbishop of Athens in 2001, he said:

“It is tragic that the assailants, who set out to secure free access for Christians to the Holy Land, turned against their brothers in the faith. The fact that they were Latin Christians fills Catholics with deep regret.”

Shared symbolism

When Mehmet the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453, he permitted his armies three days of looting, as was the custom, but then called a halt.

Most churches were allowed to continue functioning, but the Hagia Sophia was adopted as a mosque. Mehmet erected a minaret and subsequent sultans erected three more, so there is now one at each corner, but the interior remains largely as it ever was.

There is much shared symbolism between Christianity and Islam in the meaning of the dome as the physical representation of heaven and the afterlife, but the flavour of Hagia Sophia as a building was always different to the sacred buildings of Rome like the pagan Pantheon and Michelangelo’s St Peter’s.

Its design was rooted in Eastern traditions, where Persian mausoleums had a circular dome resting on a square drum. The transition between the circle and the square resulted in an octagon, which came to represent, both in Christianity and Islam, the resurrection and the journey between earth and heaven, which is why so many tombs are octagonal in both religions.

As well as shared concepts, Christians and Muslims in the eastern Mediterranean enjoyed a common heritage of building materials, techniques and tools passed on from the Graeco-Roman, Persian and even earlier Etruscan worlds.

They also shared workers, builders and craftsmen, who moved around according to demand, following the next or the most profitable commission from a wealthy patron, no matter what his religion. Byzantine mosaicists, for example, were frequently employed to decorate Islamic mosques, such as the Dome of the Rock, the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, and the Cordoba Mezquita.

In 1573 the great Ottoman architect Sinan was commissioned to strengthen Hagia Sophia, which was again starting to show signs of possible collapse. Extra buttressing was added to the outside to ensure its resistance to earthquakes.

In total, twenty-four buttresses have been added over the centuries to ensure its stability, making its external appearance quite different to how it would have looked originally.

In today’s world of intense economic pressures, a final mention should be made of the loss of revenue to the Turkish treasury through the conversion of Haghia Sophia to a mosque. Like the Blue Mosque next door, and like all mosques in Turkey (unlike many cathedrals and churches in Europe) entry will now be free to all.

The entrance fee to Hagia Sophia as a museum was expensive, c$15 per person. Maybe we should celebrate the fact that Muslims and non-Muslims alike can today make repeated visits to admire the blended architecture of Christianity and Islam on display for free in this unique building, standing on its promontory between East and West.

This article first appeared in Middle East Eye on 31 July 2020:

https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/hagia-sophia-backstory-Islam-Christianity-shared-history

Palmyra’s legacy to ISIS

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This carved block at Palmyra pre-dates the advent of Islam by four centuries, and is thought to show the world’s earliest representation of veiled women, top right. It is one of the countless examples of how practices we now consider Islamic were often traceable to pagan times.

The early Muslim armies captured Damascus in 636 just four years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and went on to make it the capital of their Umayyad Caliphate. It was the first encounter Muslims had with cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, cultures which were themselves the products of rich intermingling of Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian influences and which had in turn been under Greek and Roman influence for centuries. Commerce, as ever the driver of human inter-action, was thriving as new trade routes evolved, while religious and cultural trends co-existed.

The Umayyad Caliphate, far from seeking to ban or wipe out this multicultural heritage of earlier empires and civilisations, simply took over the existing infrastructure from the previous Byzantine and Sassanian rulers, going on to develop its own unique contribution to the art and architecture of the region. The Umayyads absorbed and adopted the customs of the cities they conquered. With the fall of borders, they unified the region thereby encouraging additional cross-fertilisation of ideas and artistic traditions. The results can be seen in all their buildings, from Jerusalem’s famous Dome of the Rock to the lesser known desert palaces like Mushatta (see photos below) and Khirbat Mafjar now scattered all over the deserts of Jordan, the West Bank and Syria.

Mshatta facade 2mshatta facade

When it comes to the case of Palmyra, this rich cultural legacy is especially clear. The carved stone blocks carry motifs of flowers, including the famous Palmyrene Rose, ringed with acanthus and lotus leaves.

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The Palmyra drawings by English architects Wood and Dawkins went on to influence directly the classical revival of the 18th century, where Palmyrene roses are often to be seen on the ceilings of grand British country houses.

The Umayyad desert palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi which stands in the desert some 100km northeast of Palmyra, has a mosque which incorporates columns and capitals brought from the site of Palmyra. The architecture of its monumental gateway displays an eclectic mix of Byzantine, Mesopotamian and Persian styles, with many recycled Roman and Byzantine capitals. Its twin, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, which lies in the desert  80km southwest of Palmyra, likewise boasted a monumental 8th century facade, now incorporated into the modern entrance of the Damascus National Museum.

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These fusions are clearly visible in the vine scrolls, the bunches of grapes symbolising wealth, fertility and prosperity in both the stone carvings of Palmyra and the decorative patterns of the Umayyad palaces, not to mention later Islamic tile patterns.

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Mythical creatures like griffins, together with birds like peacocks and eagles, animals like gazelles and lions are often found entwined in the Tree of Life, an ancient concept pre-dating Islam by centuries, yet all such motifs are still found on the borders of prayer rugs across the Muslim world. If ISIS claims that such things are idolatrous, it would also have to destroy most of the Islamic carpets and tiles of the Middle East.

And what of the many mosques across the Muslim world that were built on the foundations of earlier churches and temples, such as the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus?

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Would they too have to be destroyed, like these early Islamic mosaic visions of fantasised trees and palaces?

In the nihilistic vision of ISIS there is, it seems, no room for diversity. They have set their course on the total destruction of relics from earlier cultures, thereby denying the roots of the very Islamic civilisation to which they claim to be returning. By destroying Palmyra, they will be destroying their own roots, ensuring their own eventual downfall, since a caliphate devoid of culture cannot endure. What a perfect contradiction.

The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Art

The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel

The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library

The Prophet Muhammad solving dispute over who should rebuild Kaaba and dedicate black stone - they do it collaboratively on cloth, so all together Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh Univ library

The Prophet Muhammad solving a dispute over who should rebuild the Kaaba and dedicate the sacred black stone – they do it collaboratively on the cloth, so all together, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris, 18th century Ottoman, Topkapi Palace Museum

Muhammad carried by Gabriel arriving at gate of paradise guarded by angel Ridwan, 1360-70, Tabriz, Mi'rajnama, now in Topkapi Palace Library

The Prophet Muhammad carried by the Angel Gabriel arriving at gate of paradise guarded by the Angel Ridwan, 1360-70, Tabriz, Mi’rajnama, now in Topkapi Palace Library

The Prophet Muhammad flies over houris harvesting flowers, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad flies over houris in Paradise harvesting flowers, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq (upper right) visiting Paradise with the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below are camels ridden by fabled houris, 'virgins' promised to martyrs, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq (upper right) visiting Paradise with the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below are camels ridden by fabled houris, ‘virgins’ promised to martyrs, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq sees women strung up on hooks by their tongues by a green demon, punishment for mocking their husbands and leaving their homes without permission, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq sees women strung up on hooks by their tongues by a green demon, punishment for mocking their husbands and leaving their homes without permission, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a demon punish shameless women in hell (with Buraq and Gabriel) who have shown hair to strangers, and are strung up and burnt for eternity, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a demon punish shameless women in hell (with Buraq and Gabriel) who have shown their hair to strangers, and are strung up and burnt for eternity, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a red demon hanging up women by their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a red demon hanging up women by their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands, Persia 15th c

Since the Charlie Hebdou cartoons controversy in January 2015, and now the cafe attacks in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015, more attention has been focused on the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that do exist in Islamic art. They are not widely known: even on my Islamic Art and Architecture MA course at SOAS in 2008-9, they were never mentioned. Today there is increasing speculation that such images, as found for example in early illustrated Korans, are being steadily bought up by wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, specifically in order to be destroyed.

It is striking that the early images originate overwhelmingly from either Sunni Ottoman lands or from Persian Shi’ite lands, with almost nothing similar coming out of the Arab heartlands. In subject matter and style the drawings are reminiscent of saints’ icons, especially in their depictions of heaven and hell, complete with angels and demons.

Islamic art Algerian postcard from 1920s or 1930s showing Muhammad' Flight from Mecca in 622, entering the cave, pursued by the Quraysh

Algerian postcard from 1920s or 1930s showing the Prophet Muhammad’s Flight from Mecca in 622, entering the cave, pursued by the Quraysh on horseback

Islamic art German 1928 advert for meat extract (Bovril equivalent) showing Gabriel guiding Muhammad on flying horse to God

German 1928 advert for meat extract (Bovril equivalent) showing the Angel Gabriel guiding the Prophet Muhammad on his flying horse to God

These two final images from the 1920s are testimony to the fact that such images were evidently not seen as blasphemous a hundred years ago. The German Bovril equivalent did not have its factories blown up.

As Paul Chevedden, author of A New History of the Crusades, recently put it: “The great strength of Islam historically has been its ability to adapt itself to local cultures. Syncretism was one of its strong suits. Just think of all the pagan Arabian practices incorporated into the faith, not to mention its debt to Judaism and Christianity. Now it is only scandalized by syncretisms, and what passes for Islamic creativity amounts to ridding the faith of the accumulated traditions going back many centuries. If the trend continues, we will see a Salafī-Wahhābī wasteland. A richness and diversity of Islamic cultures replaced by a desert.” Too true.

With thanks to Paul Chevedden for sharing his thoughts.

Also thanks to the following:

Copyright � 2009 The New Criterion | http://www.newcriterion.com http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Yale—the-Danish-cartoons-4180

http://tarekfatah.com/images-of-prophet-muhammad-from-islamic-art-and-history-before-the-clan-of-ibn-saud-took-islam-hostage/

http://www.newsweek.com/koran-does-not-forbid-images-prophet-298298

 

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