11 July 2020

A song embodies the place of
Aghia Sophia in Greek emotions

The great church of Aghia Sophia became a mosque when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and became Istanbul (Photograph: Conference of European Churches)

Patrick Comerford

There has been a strong reaction throughout Greece and throughout the Orthodox world to a decree by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey yesterday (11 July 2020), ordering the conversion of Aghia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque after a court annulled a 1934 presidential decree that made it a museum.

Shortly after a Turkish court issued a long-anticipated decision, Erdogan issued a presidential decree transferring the management of the cathedral from the Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs, paving the way for its conversion. Erdogan has been a major proponent of the move.

In a televised speech yesterday (10 July 2020), Erdogan said Aghia Sophia will open for Friday prayers later this month (24 July).

The Director-General of Unesco last night expressed deep regrets at the decision, saying it was made without prior discussion.

Aghia Sophia is part of the Historic Areas of Istanbul, a property inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Audrey Azoulay of Unesco said ‘Aghia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.’

She said this decision raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property’s universal value. States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories. UNESCO must be given prior notice of any such modifications, which, if necessary, are then examined by the World Heritage Committee.

The last Divine Liturgy was served in Aghia Sophía (Άγια Σοφία) in Constantinople on Tuesday 29 May 1453. But it was disrupted by the Ottoman slaughter of all who were present in the Great Church that day.

Aghia Sophia was the cathedral of Constantinople until it was captured and desecrated by the Ottomans in 1453 and turned into a mosque. But it became a museum in 1935, and since then, all worship – Christian or Muslim – has been prohibited there.

There are many Greek legends about the Fall of Constantinople. It was said there was a total lunar eclipse on 22 May 1453, and that it was seen as a harbinger of the fall of the city. Four days later, the whole city was covered in a thick fog, which is unusual at this time of the year in the Eastern Mediterranean. When the fog lifted that evening, a strange light was seen above the dome of Aghia Sophia, and from the city walls lights were seen far out to the West, behind the camp of the besieging Turks.

Some people who saw it interpreted the light around the dome as a sign of the Holy Spirit departing from Aghia Sophia.

According to tradition, the Divine Liturgy in Aghia Sophia on Tuesday 29 May 1453 was being served by two priests, one Orthodox and one Roman Catholic, as Constantinople fell to the besieging Muslim forces. When the Ottoman invaders approached the altar, the south wall of the church is said to have opened at the touch of an angel and at his direction the priests miraculously passed through the wall, with the Holy Gifts in their hands. The door that had appeared in the solid wall closed behind the priests and reportedly will not appear again, nor will it opened again, until the interrupted Divine Liturgy can be resumed. It is said that when that day comes, the priests will re-enter through the same doorway through which they disappeared.

A similar legend says that when the Ottomans entered the city, an angel rescued the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, turned him into marble and placed him in a cave under the earth near the Golden Gate. There he awaits being brought to life again.

Inside Aghia Sophia … the Liturgy of Saint John John Chrysostom became the liturgical norm in the Church of Aghia Sophia in Constantinople

The fall of Constantinople and the legends that have grown up about it provide many of the images in the anonymous Greek poem translated by Constantine A Trypakis in The Penguin Book of Greek Verse as ‘The Last Mass in Santa Sophia’:

Σημαίνει ὁ Θιόϛ, σημαίνει ἡ γῆ, σημαίνουν τὰ ἐπουράνια,
σημαίνει κ’ ἡ Ἁγιὰ Σοφιά, τὸ μέγα μοναστήρι,
μὲ τετρακόσια σήμαντρα κ’ ἑξηνταδυὸ καμπάνεϛ,
κάθε καμπάνα καὶ παπάϛ, κάθε παπὰϛ καὶ διάκοϛ.

Ψάλλει ζερβὰ ὁ βασιλιάϛ, δεξιὰ ὁ πατριάρχηϛ,
κι’ ἀπ’ τὴν πολλὴ τὴν ψαλμουδιὰ ἐσειόντανε οἱ κολόνεϛ.
Νὰ μποῦνε στὸ χερουβικὸ καὶ νά ’βγη ὁ βασιλέαϛ,
φωνή τούς ήρθε έξ ουρανου κι απ ̓ αρχαγγέλου στόμα:

<<Παψετε το Χερουβικο κι’ ας χαμηλωσουν τ ̓ αγια,
παπάδεϛ πάρτε τὰ γιερά, καὶ σεῖϛ κεριὰ σβηστῆτε,
γιατὶ εἶναι θέλημα Θεοῦ ἡ Πόλη νὰ τουρκέψῃ.

Μὸν στεῖλτε λόγο στὴ Φραγγιά, νά ’ρθουνε τρία καράβια,
τό ’να νὰ πάρῃ τὸ σταυρὸ καὶ τἄλλο τὸ βαγγέλιο,
τὸ τρίτο τὸ καλλίτερο, τὴν ἅγια τράπεζά μαϛ,
μὴ μᾶϛ τὴν πάρουν τὰ σκυλιὰ καὶ μᾶϛ τὴ μαγαρίσουν.>>

Ἡ Δέσποινα ταράχτηκε καὶ δάκρυσαν οἱ εἰκόνεϛ.
<<Σώπασε κυρὰ Δέσποινα καὶ μὴ πολυδακρύζειϛ,
πάλι μὲ χρόνια μὲ καιρούϛ, πάλι δικά σαϛ εἶναι.>>

God rings the bells, the earth rings the bells, the sky rings the bells,
and Santa Sophia, the great church, rings the bells:
four hundred sounding-boards and sixty-two bells,
a priest for each bell and a deacon for each priest.

To the left the Emperor was chanting, to the right the Patriarch,
and from the volume of the chant, the pillars were shaking.
As they were about to sing the hymn of the Cherubim,
and the Emperor was about to appear,
A voice came to them from heaven, from the mouth of the Archangel:

‘Stop the Cherubic hymn, and let the holy elements bow in mourning.
The priests must take the sacred vessels away,
and you candles must be extinguished,
for it is the will of God that the City fall to the Turks.

‘But send a message to the West, asking for three ships to come,
one to take the Cross away, another the Holy Bible,
the third, the best of the three, our Holy Altar,
lest the dogs seize it from us and defile it.’

The Virgin was distressed, and the holy icons wept.
‘Hush, Lady, do not weep so profusely;
‘After years and after centuries they will be yours again.’

The beautiful interior of the Church of Aghia Sophia in Thessaloniki ... its design is a replica of the great Aghia Sopha in Byzantium (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The poem achieved great popularity during the Greek War of Independence and may have been the most popular demotic song among Greek-speakers in the 19th and early 20th century.

The song became the anthem of the so-called Megali Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα), and its emotional themes were echoed in influential literary circles. Nikos Kazantzakis made it the climax of his play Constantine Palaeologus, which he wrote in 1944 while Greece was under Nazi occupation.

The play concludes with the two last lines from another version of the poem:

Σώπασε, κυρα Δέσποινα, μὴν κλαῖς καὶ μὴ δακρύζεις· πάλι μὲ χρόνους, μὲ καιρούς, πάλι δικιὰ μας θά ’ναι!

The references in the poem to the numbers of tocsins, bells, high priests, priests, and deacons do not reflect historic reality. On the other hand, the Greek in this poem, interestingly, has just one word to express the phrase ‘fall to the Turks’ – τουρκέψῃ (turkepsi!). It says a lot about daily life in the last days of the Byzantine Empire: ‘Yet another turkepsimoment!’

And there are echoes here of how the protesters in Istanbul in 2013 embraced a jibe from the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. When the demonstrators first took to the streets, he branded them çapulcu, or looters – the insult also means marauders or bums.

But Erdoğan’s jibe backfired. Protesters in Istanbul and other Turkish cities embraced the word as their own. They labelled themselves proud çapulcu and even coined an English verb, capuling (pronounced chapulling, with the emphasis on the second syllable). Students sleeping under the plane trees in Gezi Park named their makeshift camp Capulistan, with signs proclaiming: ‘Capul residence.’

Erdoğan’s jibe gave a new word to the Turkish and English languages

It is commonly believed that the last Divine Liturgy in Aghia Sophia in Constantinople was served on 28 May 1453. However, a report in a newspaper in Iraklion in Crete on 3 June 1998 claimed the last Divine Liturgy in Aghia Sophia actually took place on 19 January 1919, and was celebrated by Father Lefteris Noufrakis (1872-1941), a priest from Alones in Rethymnon, Crete.

He was a military chaplain in the second Greek army division that later took part in the Asia Minor campaign and in allied expeditionary force in Ukraine in 1919. On its way to Ukraine, his division briefly stopped in Constantinople, which was occupied by the allies after the end of World War I.

The ship carrying the division anchored in the open sea, Father Lefteris and a small group of officers boarded a small boat and a Greek-speaker took them to the City and led them along the shortest path to Aghia Sophia. The door was open and all entered with reverence and made the sign of the cross.

Father Lefteris quickly identified the location of the Sanctuary and the Holy Altar. Finding a small table, he put it in place, he opened his bag, and took out everything needed for the Divine Liturgy. Then he put on his stole and began: ‘Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages.’

‘Amen,’ responded Major Liaromatis, and the Divine Liturgy at Aghia Sophia began.

The Divine Liturgy proceeded as normal, and after 466 years was celebrated in Aghia Sophia once again according to the rubrics of the Orthodox Church.

As Aghia Sophia began to fill with Turks, Father. Father Lefteris was not daunted and continued. The Gospel was followed by the Cherubic Hymn by Major Liaromatis, while Father Lefteris placed the antimension on the table for the Proskomidi.

As he Liturgy reached its most sacred point, with an emotional voice Father Lefteris said: ‘Your own of Your own, we offer to You, for all and through all.’

At the end, the Greeks knew they were in danger, left, and headed for the waterfront, where a boat was waiting to take them safely to the Greek warship.

Later, the allies protested strongly to the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who was forced to reprimand Father Lefteris Noufrakis. But secretly he contacted him and ‘praised and congratulated the patriot priest, who even for a short time brought Aghia Sophia to life, the most sacred dream of our Nation.’

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