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In the Shadow of the (Holy) Wisdom

Monday, 27 July 2020, Universität, Forschen

The transformation of holy places like the Hagia Sophia has been a common practice, says Pablo Argárate, Professor for Ecumenical Theology, Eastern Orthodoxy and Patristic Studies

Religions are (almost) always connected to certain places. Special loci are perceived as topoi, where the Holy is particularly present and active. Within religions and even confessions there are competing appropriations of loci sancti. In times of war it was consequential that the Gods of the defeated had to yield to those Gods who had proved more powerful in victory. The conquerors destroyed the holy places of the defeated or adopted them for their own religion.  Such was not only common in Islam, but also in Christianity. Heathen temples (like Baalbek or the Pantheon in Rome) and even mosques like the one of Córdoba were converted into churches.
Building an important temple of a religion is never neutral, but always part of a bigger political programme. This is also true for the (East)Roman emperors Constantine and Justinian, who ordered the construction and reconstruction of the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia). After the Turkish conquest in 1453 Mehmet II consequently had it transformed into a mosque.
There are, however, two important historical exceptions of such transformation processes. Caliph Umar refused to set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the most important church of Christianity) to keep it from being adopted by Muslims. In 1934 Attatürk turned the mosque Ayasofya into a museum. His intention was not to create a place of dialogue for different cultures and religions, but rather to restrain the power of religion. 86 years later Erdoğan now acts in an equally political way – although in the opposite direction. Neither then nor now religion was or is in the foreground. Erdoğan’s autocratic decision (the court of justice let him have his will – for whatever reason) is part of his aggressive politics: demonstration of power, distraction from the vast financial crisis and inner repression. It is also one step ahead in his provocation of the West, especially of the Greece, who see themselves as the successors of the Byzantines. On July 24th (the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne 1923) the Hagia Sophia was re-converted into a mosque. If this was inspired by (holy) wisdom, remains most questionable.

 

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