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Without Hagia Sophia, there wouldn’t be Russian Orthodoxy.
At least, if you believe Russian Primary Chronicle (the XII century text known to us only in its XIV century variant), which told us how Kievan prince Vladimir had been choosing the “true” religion for the pagan Russians.
He dismisses Islam, since “drinking is the joy of Russia, and we can’t exist without this pleasure.” He mocks the Jews for not substantiating their faith with territorial possession. But then he can’t choose between the western and eastern brands of Christianity. So he sends envoys to different countries to witness and report. And that’s what they brought back:
“Then we went to Germans and saw them performing many ceremonies in their temples, but we beheld no glory there. Then we went to Greece and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore, we cannot dwell longer here.”
And yes, it was Hagia Sophia that Vladimir’s envoy visited and where they were stung by the beauty. More than stung. Transformed, transfigured, converted.
Ever since, their words and actions kept on instructing Russians that in order to witness God dwelling among men you have to witness the beauty that men create. That it is beauty’s splendor that testifies to God’s presence. Not a sword. Not a rocket. Not a dollar.
This passage is so stunning and so memorable. It is as beautiful as Hagia Sophia. While pagan Rome can offer us only “veni, vidi, vici,” while some exceptional Americans improve it into “we came, we saw, he died,” Russians offer something different. “We came, we saw, we got transformed”: “veni, vidi, transfiguri,” if you pardon my Latin.
Indeed, the structure is breathtaking, and it was meant this way. According to the Byzantine historian, Procopius, the interior of the church, was: “too splendid to appear ordinary and too tastefully decorated to appear excessively rich. It is bathed in sunlight and the reflection of the sun’s rays; one might almost say that it is not illuminated from without by the sun but that the radiance originates from within, so inundated with light is this sanctuary. .. Upon the central circle rises a sort of huge spherical dome, an incomparably beautiful structure; it seems not so much to rest upon the solid substructure, as … to be suspended from heaven… If anyone enters to pray, then his mind is lifted up and he walks in heaven; he thinks that God cannot be far away and that He gladly dwells in this place that He himself has chosen.”
But let’s descent from Heaven to Earth. So what exactly is Erdogan doing, and why does it matter?
For me, he is engaged in something truly demonic, because he is generating discord and enmity. I like Turks. I like the country. I like Istanbul. Just last November I was there, enjoying the sights, and Bosporus, and the city, and the food, and the culture. I am sure my sentiment is shared by many people from all over the world. Russian tourists in Turkey is as a fixture as the Chinese in Gallery Lafayette.
Yet, a lot of Orthodox do remember. Armenians remember. Serbs remember. Bulgarians remember. Russians remember. So why stir shit? Why lacerate the wound that has just been covered with a thin layer of new skin?
As with all sorts of inevitable evil or injustice, people make peace with it. As we make peace with illness, or bad weather, or nasty and abusive cops. So yes, people made peace with the fact that Hagia Sophia had been in Ottoman hands converted into mosque for five centuries. People made peace that it is been turned into the museum for the last 90 years. But why rub it in? Why provoke enmity and ill feelings?
The answer is simple. Erdogan does not care. All politics – at least as far as Democracies are concerned – is local. It has to appeal to locals. That’s why Erdogan can dismiss Christians, because their vote does not count. And he can dismiss his own secularized segment, because by definition, these children of Ataturk, do not worry about religious feelings of others.
That’s exactly what American Democrats keep on doing as well: who cares about Russians or Orthodox– there are too few of them to vote, and religion is not to be encouraged to begin with. So who cares about Serbs or Greeks – there is not enough of them to protest while we dismantle Yugoslavia and bomb Belgrade for three months. Of course, Canadians care about Ukrainians. Because there is at least a million of them in Canada.
So yes, it is a demonic work, camouflaged as democratic. In pursuit of votes, lets ostracize, lets sow the discord, and set people against each other. Just another day in politics, I guess. But common people would suffer. Demonic work always ends in disaster. But by that time, Erdogan will retire to his dacha on Bosporus, enjoying the sunsets over the stunning landscape.