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Beyond East and West—the Haghia Sophia

I am coming back from three weeks in paradise, called by the local Istanbul.   (and by some, Constantinople).

There is so much to adore about this magical place, and many clichés.    While many rely on the old “East meets West”, “Bridge between Asia and Europe” cliché, we often fail to realize just how deep the intertwined connections in this part of the world run.  

We in the United States and Western Europe tend to put draw a straight line from ancient Greece to Rome, and then onto the Renaissance and then onto Enlightenment and contemporary West.    We overlook the fact that Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to his new city, Constantinople, as of 330.   We forget that Constantinople was simply “New Rome.”  The Eastern Christianity that disappears from our view was in many ways was the center of Christiandom for centuries and centuries….

In other words, the lines of “East” and “West” did not exist back then, these are our inventions, our lines, our borders, our obsessive sense of needing to construct a genealogy even as it obfuscates an actual, more complicated, and real history. 

So let us hear it for Constantinople, let us hear it for New Rome, let us hear it for Istanbul.  Let us hear it for a place where Byzantine Greek culture met Christianity, met Islam.    Let us hear it for a place where waters meet, where cultures overlap, where people from near and far mingle, now in peace and now in tension.


And let us look at an image of what was the center of this place for over 1400 years, first as the grandest church in the world for almost a thousand years, and then as an incomparable mosque. This is the Haghia Sophia, the famous Mosque/Church of Constantinople/Istanbul.   

It is this church that contains some of the most famous representations of Christ and the Virgin,

this church that contains the largest dome that had ever been built in the world.   It is this church that according to its architects had the philosophy of having a dome, representing the heavenly throne with its image of Christ, being held up not with a forest of columns, but rather by having the considerable weight of the dome distributed through lower domes.   The effect is to create a cavernous wide open space that would then be filled by the spirit of God.

The inside space had been broken up by a scaffolding for restorations for over 10 years, and now finally we can get a sense of the extraordinary opening created.    It’s like the work of a great musician, where the magic happens not just by the notes, by the silence and opening between the notes.  It’s not just the dome and the stone, but the opening that creates the magic.  And likewise with us, it is not just our flesh and bones, but rather the opening of the heart that creates the space filled by God’s own presence.

This church/mosque continues to be venerated by Christians and Muslims alike, and right down to today we see Christians and Muslims adoring it, and admiring the presence of the same God.    It is a reminder of how silly and unconvincing conventional "East/West" dichotomies are and have been.   It is not so much East meets West; it is Earth meets Heaven.


Tags: aya sophia, christianity, constantinople, east, haghia sophia, islam, istanbul, west


  1. Christians and Muslims do not worsip the same God.  We worship the Holy Trinity.  Muslims do not.  To say they are the same is a grave error.

  2. I’m sorry but Christians and Muslims don’t worship the same God. This is the problem.

  3. Lyrical and irenic, but disingenuous or deluded:  “It is a reminder of how silly and unconvincing conventional “East/West” dichotomies are and have been.”

    The writer fails to remember that the greatest church in Christendom became “an incomparable mosque” by invasion, conquest and force of arms by an alien and imperialist religious and ethnic force: Turkish Islam, the successor to the previous alien and imperialist religious and ethnic force, Arab Islam, which invaded and conquered by force of arms the Christian Roman Empire.

    Islam VS Christendom (now the post-Christian “West”). Please don’t take a symbol of displacement and try to turn it into Disneyland.

  4. Hello Matt and Jon Woods.  Fortunately, the Vatican as well as many Protestant denominations disagree with your assessments, and recognize that Muslims, Jews, and Christians do in fact worship the same deity, even though we have different ways of understanding the same God.  For some of the latest developments, see the “A Common Word” initiative.
    and EssEm, I would never deny the reality of conquest, and no one is talking about Disneyland.  However, I would state that the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Spanish Empire, the British Empire, and today, the American Empire all qualify as empires.    All of them have utilized conquest to accomplish their imperial goals.  In other words, unlike your assessment, I do not see conquest and imperial might the monopoly of Islam, but rather see it as the tendency of all world-conquering empires.   
    May God bless you all.  Omid Safi

  5. Mr. Safi, I (a Christian) appreciate you bringing this magnificent place to our attention and for lifting our vision toward heaven.  God bless you!

  6. No, Mr. Safi, your vague travel talk just won’t do—we know how Hagia Sophia became a mosque in 1453.

  7. Mr. Safi, I appreciate your article! It is true that not all groups under the name of Christian belief the same, as I understand also occurs throughout Islam. The precise difference in belief that makes “the same god” impossible is that historically orthodox Christians believe that Jesus IS God. I am correct in the understanding that Muslims only revere Jesus as a prophet? If so, that is a most fundamental difference that cannot be overlooked.

  8. is ego meets Spirit, the awakening of the Soul.

  9. Ah yes, Istanbul. Mack, had the Western Catholics not sacked Constantinople during the 4th Crusade perhaps it’s Christian defenders could have kept Mehmet II out? If Conquest is such an atrocious thing I’ll tell you what, you give us Cordoba and Jerusalem back and we’ll give you the Hagia Sofia-then everything’ll be squarsies. While we’re swapping, get in touch with the pagans-I’m sure they’d take Rome back, and what about pretty much all of North America?

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