My mom still talks about a time when I was a toddler and wanted so badly to see the inside of a church I had spotted on the side of the road. Being an adventurous mom, she pulled over and took me inside. Next thing you know, little Connie Ann is running up and down the aisles from the front to the back, pointing at the cross and shouting gleefully, “Jesus!”
I’ve since learned to control my outbursts (mostly). But I still love, love, love churches. Today I want to talk about my experience visiting one of the world’s greatest, found in the city of my namesake. (Yes, my name is Constance, but when my mom was in a playful mood, she called me Constantinople. And this was before I became a lover of Church history.)
Dedicated on my birthday, December 27 (though in 537), the Hagia Sophia is a beautiful masterpiece of Byzantine culture as well as an engineering marvel. The ring of windows at the base of the dome amazed everyone who saw it. “What is holding the dome?” they wondered. It looks as though the dome is suspended on a ring of light.
Apart from the columns, the marble, the dome, and the windows, this church was filled with the most ornate mosaics in the empire. Beautiful scenes filled every wall and alcove, designed to lift the viewer’s thoughts to the world above.
Visiting this great wonder of the world was a dream come true, though it was also marked with sadness. You see, when Constantinople was overtaken by the Ottoman Turks in 1431, they converted our beautiful home into a mosque. The Christian artifacts were removed and the heavenly mosaics were covered in plaster. Islamic art and writings were hung over the images of our Lord and the Saints. The Glory of Christendom was forced to submit to the Muslims, guarded by four minarets.
In 1935, Mustafa Atatürk had the Hagia Sophia converted once again- this time to a museum. In an effort to honor both the Christian and Islamic history of the building, some of the mosaics were once again exposed, though many remain covered to this day.
This is our Constantinople, bound by the shackles of time. Being in this place, seeing what it was, and knowing what it has become created such a storm of emotions in my soul. They say you many not pray in the building- but they can say what they want.
What is there to say when one walks where such tragedy has occurred? What once was the beautiful house of God is beaten down and chained by years of wounds and disenchantment. Would anyone believe the glory it used to house? Will it ever again be what it truly is? How many souls are just like this temple, tragically fallen from grace and seemingly without hope? What glorious beauty hides beneath the whitewash of our conquerors? When will we break the shackles and accept who we were meant to be? Do we have the Faith and Hope to live for the One who built us?
I hope so. And yes, it will always be Constantinople to me.