Desecrate: to violate the sanctity of; to treat disrespectfully, irreverently, or outrageously
Ever since I was quite young, I wanted to travel to Istanbul to visit Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, also called Ayasofya in Turkish and Sancta Sophia in Latin. This past spring, I finally did. My husband and I enjoyed a short and wonderful visit to Istanbul. Given our time constraints, we did not venture beyond the major tourist areas, which might have had something to do with our comfort level. Throughout our stay, we were met with smiles wherever we went and felt very welcome and safe.
It's not my intention for this post to give a full history of Hagia Sophia, but I can share a few tidbits. It was constructed from 532 to 537 A.D. at the order of Emperor Justinian. That was a long time ago, before they used steel in construction, yet it's massive. It is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture and for a thousand years was the largest church in the world. The original dome was of solid gold and collapsed in 558, possibly due to an earthquake. The second, current dome was finished four years later, steeper than the first, and has survived many earthquakes since then, among other things. As a matter of personal interest, I was surprised to note that within it are eight magnificent, ancient columns that Justinian had moved from the Roman temple complex at Baalbek in Lebanon. They're also huge, by the way. Hagia Sophia has survived many wars, the city's destruction by the crusaders, and was converted to a mosque in 1453. During its time as a mosque, the iconostasis was removed and magnificent icons were plastered over. Minarets were added to the exterior. In 1935, the first Turkish president Mustafa Ataturk declared it a museum.
In the past few years, there have been pushes and pulls to return it to a church or mosque. I suppose that I must hope that it remains a museum, since that is the most peaceful solution. But how did I find the experience of visiting this magnificent building I'd wanted to see since before I was even a teenager?
First of all, I was grateful to be able to see it, to be in this specific place where so much history had occurred. I was overwhelmed by its size and by the beauty of the icons. My engineer husband marveled at the feat of engineering and architecture.
Structure, building. . . notice the vocabulary? I did not feel for a moment that I was in a church. I don't blame the Turkish government. Making it a museum was a generous compromise. But there was a sadness in the building, a lack of holiness for all its history, and that sadness communicated itself to me. It also made me think.
How often do we commit acts of desecration? I say more often than we'd like to admit. There's no need to look so far as war or terrorism or even to the abominations we commit as societies. Let's make it a smaller, more personal examination. How often do we as individuals violate the sanctity within another person, treat others disrespectfully, discriminate? Just as with Hagia Sophia, there is a terrible sadness in that.
I am reminded of a video that a good friend, Antoinette Chahine, recently shared with me. The video is from Momondo, an online travel service. The company, founded in Denmark, sponsored a worldwide "DNA Journey" contest. Once the contest was over, they made a video. The message is simple and it is a good one.
The YouTube link for the video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyaEQEmt5ls
If you are interested in learning more about the video, the contest, or Momondo's travel services, their great website: www.momondo.com/letsopenourworld/dna
Hagia Sophia has stood the test of time with great dignity. I am glad to know there are still lessons to be learned from it, that Holy Wisdom is timeless.
Surely, the past, present, and future connect in this miraculous state we call life. In this light, history and all human experience are ever-present. Wouldn't it be nice, then, if we could enjoy each other, if we could appreciate and celebrate our differences? Let us love! Let us have fun. Let us toast each other and wish each other well. Now, in our awareness, is the time to be happy, to do our best, to live fully to our purest, highest standards.