The decision by the Turkish government to restore the Hagia Sophia, a famous building in Istanbul, Turkey, into a working mosque has been making the rounds on the news in July 2020.
Originally built as a church, it was later converted to a Mosque, is currently a museum but will become a working mosque again. Outside of the 5 prayer times the building will continue to be open to the public for visits.
So what is its story?
The Hagia Sophia was originally built at the request of the Roman Emperor Justin in 530’s AD and the current building is the third building on the site. The previous ones having been burnt down by riots. According to Wikipedia “Hagia Sophia was the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, such as coronations”
When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 it was converted into a mosque by adding the surrounding minarets. Close by the Sultans constructed their palaces and for hundreds of years the structure played an important part in Ottoman history.
Fast forward to 1935 and the start of a new secular government under Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). The Hagia Sophia began to be used now as a museum. It is still the most visited museum in Turkey. Last year it had around 4 million visitors both Muslim and Christian. It is often pointed to as a symbol of Muslims and Christians sharing and co-existing.
However today there is a new direction for the Hagia Sophia. This year, at the decree of the President of Turkey, the museum status of the historic building has been revoked and it has been returned to an official working Mosque. Consequently there are a number of reactions and cries from people in the world news.
The Hagia Sophia really is an amazing piece of architecture and for many a favourite place to take visitors in Istanbul. Why has this happened? There are plenty of opinions being aired in the media, I’ll just say it is not for lack of mosques in the country.
Rather than giving an opinion on why, I want to explore how the Bible prepares us for events like these and how followers of Jesus can respond.
Since the ascension of Jesus Christ the church went from being a handful of persecuted people to becoming the state religion of the whole Roman Empire. Living in a time, today, when Christians enjoy being a majority we can understand the thinking that the church would go from strength to strength.
We consider that the collapse of the Roman Empire and the fall of one of its capitals, Constantinople, came to be symbolised by the conversion of this grand cathedral into a mosque, many believers began to question their assumptions of Christianity. Yet again, today, as we see this museum being returned to its former status, not as a church but as a mosque, we can find ourselves in that same boat and wondering why?
So let me ask this question: How do we understand God as being in control when things seem to be going bad?
I want to give three verses and principles to help us look at history and see a suitable response as followers of Jesus. (Note I did not come up with these, but I found them helpful while I was living as a minority Christian in a majority Muslim country).
1. Daniel 4:17, 32 “God rules over the Kingdom of man” This statement was written in a time of great disaster; The Babylonian Captivity. We must recognise that the Babylonians were God’s tool which he used for his purposes. The response for followers of Jesus in such seeming disaster is Faith - for us to believe in this scripture and trust our futures to this promise.
2. Matthew 16:18 “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not stand” This is God’s purpose - to build his church. The response of a follower of Jesus is to be involved in the purposes of God.
3. Psalm 2:1-5 “The nations will rage” The Nations will rage against the truth of the now but not yet Kingdom of God and the kingship of Jesus Christ/ The Messiah who has all authority. The response of a follower of Jesus is to stand as witnesses of this truth despite opposition from our fellow humans.
As a Christian who has lived for 15 years in Turkey, I feel this recent news of the Hagia Sophia isn’t where the story is for God and his followers. I think that this amazing, beautiful building was perhaps a symbol of man’s efforts and has in truth been empty of heartfelt Christian worship for 100’s of years.
If we look away from the headlines and news of Hagia Sophia, we see another building is being built in the nation of Turkey. It is small but growing, and being built not out of bricks and mortar but of people being brought into God’s kingdom
by the power of His Holy Spirit. I think this building catches the eye of our God more today and truly is a miraculous story set against all odds. This is something to get excited by and possibly to become part of yourself.
What do you think?