With the world distracted, Turkey’s government cancels Byzantine history

The term “cancel culture” has been widely used in recent years to refer to efforts by both the political left and right to aggressively annul closely held cultural beliefs and even individual personalities by one side or the other. With governments worldwide struggling to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, Turkey’s Islamist government implemented cancel culture on a massive scale with the conversion of the 6th Century Byzantine Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) into a mosque.

Before going further, I need to lay some groundwork for what follows. First, I am writing from the perspective of a secular humanist; this is, an atheist. No argument from Islamist zealots, modern Orthodox reactionaries, European or American Christians seeking to generate political capital from this event nor any other interest group have played any part in my thinking. Second, I am writing from the perspective of someone with an academic background in archaeology. The truth as revealed by the historical written record and the archaeological record is important to me above all else in this matter. Third, I am writing from the perspective of a practicing artist; this is, someone who makes a substantial part of my living marketing and selling my own art. Looking at art and thinking about the role of art in both the past and in modern society is vitally important to me. Fourth, I am writing from the perspective of someone with a family background in the Middle East (my mother was Assyrian), who also happens to have a decidedly left leaning political and social perspective.

The facts of this recent event, which went largely unnoticed by a distracted world, are quickly laid out: In early July of this year, Turkey’s Council of State debated annulment of the 1934 decision to convert Hagia Sophia to a museum. The outcome of this debate was a forgone conclusion, as the Council was packed with loyalists to President Erdogan, the Islamist head of state, who had also served as Prime Minister from 2004-2014. On July 14, the Council voted to proceed and it was announced that the first Islamic prayers would be held inside the building on July 24. The screen capture below, from the Turkish government’s website, shows how quickly this decision was implemented.

Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum since 1935 had been a powerful symbol of Turkey’s secular status. This was a uniquely Turkish national characteristic among Middle Eastern nations. But under a resurgent Islamist political party, the AKP, with Erdogan at its head, Turkey’s secular institutions have been slowly dismantled and power centralized under an increasingly authoritarian, anti-free press regime. The conversion announcement was condemned by UNESCO, various heads of state around the world, the Pope, heads of all the Orthodox churches and by the secular Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.

It should be pointed out that Hagia Sophia is not the first ancient Byzantine monument to be converted to a mosque under the current regime. There have been three previous such moves in recent years, including the famed Church of the Chora Monastery.

Byzantine civilization is perhaps the least well understood, at least in Europe and the Americas, of all great civilizations of the past. Mention Byzantium to the average American and you’ll evoke a puzzled silence brought about by a mental fumbling of exactly where Byzantium fits in the tide of human history. With that in mind, I’d like to briefly lay out a few simple facts to help underscore the great importance of Hagia Sophia and the culture that created it.

In the early 4th Century CE (CE is the widely accepted term that replaces AD), the Roman Empire — which had dominated the Mediterranean world, much of Northern Europe including Britain, the North African coastline, Egypt, what is now Turkey and much of the Near East for centuries — was facing ever growing threats from the east. These included new enemies, migratory people such as the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns and many others who had been slowly moving westward from their original homelands in the Central Asian Steppe regions. And old enemies, the resurgent Persian Empire under the Sassanian Kings. With a need to centralize command and control in a location better suited to meet these threats than the old capital at Rome, in 330 CE the Emperor Constantine I established a “new Rome” on the Bosporus Straights. It was the site of an ancient Greek town, providing access to the Mediterranean through the sea of Marmara to the west, the Black Sea to the east, and sitting on the connection point of Rome’s Greek speaking Asian provinces and Latin speaking western provinces. It was, of course, called Constantinopolis (Constantinople).

Nearly two centuries later, in 537 CE, under the Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia was inaugurated. Designed and built by two mathematicians, Isidore and Anthemius, it was the principle location of events of state and the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and therefore the primary church of the Byzantine world (“Byzantine” is a term coined later by historians; the Byzantines always referred to themselves as Romans). There simply was nothing else like it in on Earth. It featured the largest dome in the world for a thousand years until the completion of St Peter’s in Rome, the dome covering a space of 65,000 square feet. It was constructed of the finest, most exotic marbles, the interiors surfaced with stunning mosaics, and furnished with rare, exotic and ancient objects brought from Rome and other major cities in the Mediterranean world. Emissaries from European kingdoms, barbarian tribes, Vikings, Persians and others were left dumbfounded by Hagia Sophia’s opulence. With the Ottoman Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, which by then comprised little more than the City of Constantinople itself, the great church was looted of its remaining valuables, its portable artworks hacked to bits and its clergy killed or sold into slavery, with the building itself converted to a mosque. It remained so until the secular Turkish government of Kemal Attaturk converted it to a museum.

Exterior view of the dome of Hagia Sophia as seen from the south.
Interior view of Hagia Sophia, showing part of the dome and hemi-domes. Credit: Tranxen / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)
Gold mosaic inside Hagia Sophia showing the Emperor John Komnenos II and his wife Irene. On the left, Irene is holding a scroll; to the right is John carrying a bag of coins. These symbolize donations to the Church. In the middle, Virgin Mary wearing blue robes, and holding Christ in her arms. 12th Century.
9th Century gold mosaic of Virgin Mary sitting on a backless throne, with Christ on her lap. Situated in the apse of the hemi-dome above the altar.

Edward Gibbon’s monumental 18th Century work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire saw Byzantium as merely a corrupted poor relation of the earlier Roman Empire. Due in part to this and a European preference for a (perceived) secularized Roman world of the Republic and Empire, as opposed to the religiously inclined Byzantine world, and perhaps a European guilt at the sacking and temporary occupation of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, western historians long dismissed Byzantine studies.

In recent decades there has been a resurgence of interest in the Byzantine world, and a much deeper appreciation of Byzantium as a dynamic, multi-cultural society. Western scholarship has finally begun to acknowledge the vital role played by Byzantium in preserving classical Greek and Roman literature, transmitting this to the west, mainly through the Italian commercial republics (Venice, Florence, Genoa) from the 13th through 15th Centuries and helping kick start the Italian Renaissance. Once viewed by the west as monolithic and fossilized, Byzantine history, society and art have more recently been recognized as complex, subtle, sophisticated in ways that European society would not be until much later in its history (illiteracy was virtually unknown among the middle and upper classes in the Byzantine world), and capable of producing sublime works of visual art and architecture. Hagia Sophia is the most grand of these works. And all of this doesn’t even touch upon the profound political, artistic and theological impact Byzantium had upon Eastern Europe, Russia and the Islamic world for many centuries.

Shortly after their decision to convert Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, the Turkish authorities issued a vague statement outlining a bizarre plan to cover the mosaics and other Byzantine representational images inside the building with laser light or draperies during Muslim prayers. Based on what the current Turkish government has done with the physical remains of Byzantine heritage thus far, this is surely the next step in a creeping long term plan to “cancel” the remaining vestiges of Byzantium.

It was the early 20th Century English travel writer Robert Byron who described the Byzantine Empire as the fusion of a Roman body, a Greek mind and a mystical soul. A leading advocate for the refurbishment of Byzantium’s reputation, he may have been strongly influenced by the Romantic poets, who had their own misconceptions about Byzantium. But on the whole, I believe his assessment was accurate. For this reason alone, Byzantium, it’s last Emperor Constantine XI, who died fighting at the breach in Constantinople’s walls on its last day, Tuesday, the 29th of May, 1453, and the incomparable achievement of Hagia Sophia itself, deserve better than the disgraceful treatment outlined above.

It would require a great many posts in this blog to attempt a meaningful summary of Byzantine art and history; that is a task best undertaken by others. But for those less familiar with Byzantium and its achievements, here is a very short list of websites, documentaries and books I believe to be of some value (all links open in a new tab):

WEBSITES & DOCUMENTARIES

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection in Georgetown, Washington, DC, features a stunning collection of Byzantine and related art. Their online collections include Byzantine textiles, coins, seals and manuscripts. https://www.doaks.org/resources/online-collections

Some years ago, renowned British archaeologist John Romer, who has a great talent for story telling, created a 4 part series on Byzantium. It can be accessed for free on YouTube. I’ve included links to all 4 episodes. #1 https://youtu.be/WW1J1VH966c #2 https://youtu.be/l3aUL_YM89Y #3 https://youtu.be/j9l6hzKPRlY #4 https://youtu.be/4yC-gif0H-s

BOOKS

The Glory of Byzantium: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, AD 843-1261. This monumental work, which accompanied a 1997 exhibition of the same name at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, may be downloaded for free or read online from the Met’s website. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/metpublications/The_Glory_of_Byzantium_Art_and_Culture_of_the_Middle_Byzantine_Era_AD_843_1261?Tag=&title=&author=&pt=0&tc={F52F45EC-2E28-4BC3-96B6-879A33F0B139}&dept=0&fmt=0

A Short History of Byzantium. John Julius Norwich. Alfred A Knopf, New York, 1997. This thick single volume is an abbreviated version, based on a great three volume work.

PLEASE NOTE: Comments for this blog entry have been turned off, as there will surely be partisans of every religious, political and philosophical persuasion demanding my head after reading this.