“But it’s a UNESCO heritage site!!” What a strange way to begin this conversation, rarely does one ask a question, make a statement or a comment even. It's somehow unavoidable though, as those would be the very words of any other heritage site that sits beneath the umbrella of UNESCO.
I can sit here and write the usual, of when the magnificent building was brought to life. We all know the facts of when it was built, we all know when it was lost, we all know when its soul was manipulated. So, while I write this piece through my eyes, the eyes of a 2nd generation Greek Australian, I will refer to the majestic Hagia Sophia as a church. Exactly the way that I know her to be.
There would be many that would say that I am not the most religious person in the world, and they would be correct in saying that. Having been born Greek and into the Greek Orthodox faith and as far away as the word “diaspora” highlights my birthplace, there, are be two things that are the knots that hold Constantinos together. Thessaloniki and Constantinople. Agios Dimitris and Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia, the church that has followed my footsteps wherever I might be. From my late father and grandfather sharing little pieces of the family story. Beginning in Eastern Thrace and continuing to Thessaloniki as “prosfiges”. To reading online reports in 2020 regarding the plight of this majestic church.
There are few things in this world of ours that hold us together, one would argue that there would be more, much more divisive things that tear us apart. One of the best examples of this would be the Greek Genocide, it impacted millions.
To this very day there are continuing arguments, challenges, even legal cases from our own about what this means. We have several dates of commemoration and remembrance; we have countless titles for the one event. And we have our very own from one region saying that those of another region were somehow impacted less, even to the point that it wasn’t Genocide for them. All of this playing wonderfully into the hands of those that deny the horrors of the Greek Genocide.
Throughout all of this there was one symbol that stood for all, one symbol that represented all that were torn to pieces by this Genocide, that church. The one that ties the knots into the fabric of who we are as a people HAGIA SOPHIA.
One person understood the power and symbolism of this church, a church which during the time of the Ottomans was converted to a mosque. Atatürk understood the symbolism of Hagia Sophia and in doing so he converted Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum. It will always be a Church.
It was a very shrewd move as the world looked on in awe at this magnificent new museum and the thought of a secular Turkey. This almighty church once more astonished the world and allowed a shrewd leader even a criminal, the definition of war crimes tells us he was, to put a blanket over Genocide.
As I write this I sit in the shelter of my own home and wonder what will change, the church we know will always be the church. The disgusting political games being played on the back of Hagia Sophia, will continue to be played by the Erdoğan Government. I guess in many respects he heeded the lessons of his nemesis Atatürk. And said yes, I can use the very same blanket and cover the eyes of the world.
Where are you Greece? I’m calling out to you from my home many thousands of kilometres away, where are you.
I don’t want the words of my grandfather and father to be eroded by these foolish global political games and manoeuvring. With these thoughts, my fingers walked into an online conversation, with someone who identified as Turkish, he didn’t tell me where he was from and I didn’t particularly care. The conversation itself, although civil did not end the way it had begun. By that stage it had become something other. He had a very different take on history than mine.
I possibly offended him (assuming it was a him), when I simply said when one picks up a book of history, there are many chapters prior to the year 1453. The reality is that the current government in Turkey does not see any of this as disrespectful or even delusional. It is seen as their right.
So now I reflect on the songs, the books, the stories that I have been told, stories that must continue to be told. I reflect on the silent whispers of those that were forced from those lands, together with those that left their last breath within those lands. And I realise that church HAGIA SOPHIA is not just about religion, it is the symbol of who we are.
I find it difficult to separate Constantinople and Hagia Sophia, in many respects for me they are one and the same. Hagia Sophia could not have been built elsewhere and Constantinople would not be the Constantinople that we know without Hagia Sophia.
And we wouldn’t be who we are without both.