Lessons Learned from a Service Retreat

Here in Virginia, we recently completed a Service Retreat through our Young Adults ministry. We partnered with the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church to assist with the ongoing recovery from Hurricane Matthew. Our group of 20 young adults prayed together, ate together, and served together from October 27-29 in Virginia Beach, Virginia.


Over the course of the weekend, we were able to reflect on our service and the impact it was having both on our community and on ourselves. Here are three things we learned that apply not only to our local community but to the Orthodox Church at large.


1. We thirst to serve


Orthodox Christians have a thirst to serve others. You don’t even have to go far to see this. Go to a church luncheon, a Greek wedding, an Arab engagement party, or a parishioner’s home, and you’ll see what I mean. We’re a community that loves to give to others and to see them leave our presence fuller than when they came to us. This desire to give and to serve is a reflection of our relationship with Christ.


Our young adults in Virginia saw that service is a fruit of the liturgy after our trip to Project Mexico and since then many in our community felt the need to reach out nearer to home. As Orthodox Christians, we have been given this beautiful community of believers, knit together as the Body of Christ, that we call the Orthodox Church. It’s such a blessing in our lives, but we might take it for granted since it’s so much a part of our personal identities. We are filled more than we know, but what are we doing with this extra love and joy that we receive from the Risen Christ every Liturgy?


We leave the Liturgy filled, but we then have a thirst to share and serve others. We worship a God who entered into our human experience, who thirsted and hungered, who died and rose from the dead. Christ tells us that He thirsts and hungers along with those in need, and that we serve Christ Himself when we serve others (Matthew 25:31-46). So it seems only natural that we would have a thirst to serve others the more we attend the Divine Liturgy; it is there that we meet Christ, there that we have communion with Him in the Eucharist, and are sent out into the world to do His work.


Even after our service retreat, we all wanted to do more. We wanted to go back to the homes we helped in and to finish the jobs we couldn’t do in a day. We wanted to know that the families we met were doing better, to somehow keep in touch. This is the fruit of human connection and of service. And the more we give, the more we realize there are so many still in need.


2. We are all surrounded by people in need


By the time Hurricane Matthew made landfall in Virginia Beach, it wasn’t even a hurricane anymore. Most of Virginia Beach residents just had puddles and fallen leaves to worry about. But neighborhoods all over the city that had never experienced flooding before were affected;  whole neighborhoods submerged, cars and homes filled with feet of water. Sometimes random homes within a neighborhood were flooded while the rest were fine. At the end of the storm, 2200 homes were damaged, with 1500 of those experiencing flooding.


It’s easy to look at one’s own lot and assume others must be fine, too.


A year after Hurricane Matthew, there are still homes without floors, with flood damage, and their residents have no support system to help them recover. After our team worked during the day on the five homes that were assigned to us, we had a campfire to discuss our thoughts and reflections on the day. Most of us were from the area and were shocked not only that there was so much damage (that we never saw ourselves!) but also that the damage still had yet to be fixed a year later. We were shocked that these people - our neighbors - lacked the familiar support they needed to get out of their situation.


This Sunday’s Gospel passage (the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus) reminds us that we are all surrounded by people in need. In it we see the convicting story of a man who lived his whole life ignoring the needs of Lazarus who lived just outside of his gate. [Watch this week’s Live the Word to reflect more on this Gospel passage.] This service trip opened our eyes to finally see the faces of those outside of our gates, the Lazarus that Christ calls us to serve.  


Many of our neighbors, and even our own family members, are struggling with things we know nothing about. We can all more actively be a compassionate presence in our homes, our places of work, and in the many interactions we have each day. How can we give from what we have - a listening ear, a helpful hand, an arm of support - to help with the struggles of our neighbor?


3. It’s both and; not either or


When many Orthodox Christians hear about missions, they either think of international missions by various Protestant groups (or through the Orthodox Church with OCMC) or of charities that serve people locally. The temptation is to think of missions as either we support one or the other. But the Lord reminds us that we are called not to serve only here or there, but “in Jerusalem, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In other words, God is calling us to serve in our local community, in other parts of this country, and internationally.


The ministry of the Church isn’t restricted to the work of bishops, priests, and deacons; the ministry of Christ is shared by all of us who serve in youth groups, young adult groups, women’s societies, and men’s organizations. We can give back by helping to fund those going on short term mission trips, by praying for our missionaries, and by supporting the great work of charities like IOCC.


Each of us can pray for guidance, that God will direct our attention to where we can most be of service. Maybe God is calling you to serve in your parish, but maybe He’s also calling you to the Seminary. You might help at the local soup kitchen, but God might also be calling you to long-term missions. Each one of us has a unique and ongoing call from Christ to live out our unique Christian vocation. How is Christ calling you to serve both in your local community and even to the ends of the earth?


The morning of our day of service, the Gospel reading was about Mary and Martha. It was as if the Lord were reminding us of our need to balance our inner Mary and Martha rather than reject one in favor of the other.




Our Orthodox community really desires to give back to the local communities we are a part of. All of our communities are surrounded by people in need, even in areas you might not expect. The Orthodox Church doesn’t see service as either local or international; we are called to serve everywhere there is need. Not everyone is called to be a priest, a nun, or a missionary. But all of us are called by Christ to serve those around us.


What can you do to serve your local community? How can you assist with international charities or missions? Who in your community could use your help?



Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a supporter. Your contribution can help us continue the work we’re doing.


Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos & Sam Williams


Being a Compassionate Presence

It only takes a cursory glance at the news or at our social media feeds to realize there’s a lot going on in our world these days. And it’s affecting our friends, our family, and us, too. It’s hard enough to hold on to God for our own spiritual health, let alone to know how to respond to others.


Is there something we can do to help with all of this negativity? Is prayer enough? This balancing act can be difficult when so many voices are shouting all around us. It can be tempting to jump into the internet debates and get riled up in the world’s passions.


It can be tempting to forget that we as Christians are called not to reflect the ways of this world, but to reflect Christ. Instead of getting involved in the negative banter, how can we instead be instruments of peace, reconciliation, and compassion?


1. Listen first


How often do we actually listen when others talk to us? I have a horrible memory when it comes to learning names. I have to visualize their name (visual learner problems) before I can commit their name to memory. But the other problem is that I’m usually so focused on what I’ll say next that I don’t listen fully when they tell me their name. I need to listen first.


When it comes to divisive issues, it’s even harder to listen. We want to close our ears or speak louder to drown out their opinion. Or we listen only enough to find something to attack, criticize, or shoot down.


We listen enough to win, to be right.


If we hope to reflect Christ in this world, we must first listen. It will take patience, it will take work, but it is necessary if we want to actually respect the person before us (whether behind a screen or not).


2. Questions over answers


A characteristic of Orthodox spirituality that I’ve grown to appreciate is the preference of giving questions instead of answers. Usually, behind someone’s opinion is a host of assumptions that are informing their current stance and could potentially prevent them from receiving the answer the Church might give. Likewise, in our society of debate and attacks, we see a lot of calls to action and demands, we see name-calling and assumptions being made.


So after we have listened to the complaints and concerns of those around us, we need to ask more questions to get a clearer picture of how the person is forming their opinion. Why do they feel scared? What is behind their fear? What about their opponent causes them so much anger and passion? What personal experiences have led them to their current stance or worldview? Have they made friends with a person that holds the opposing view?


Sometimes we just need to be asked questions to bring us back to earth. We just need a new perspective. Sometimes our assumptions and passions puff us up so much we need a bit of a deflation to see the reality of our own prejudices.


3. Unity over division


The devil is the one who divides; the Holy Spirit is the One who unites. The Holy Spirit strengthens us and inspires us to seek union over division, to help heal the wounds of division rather than reopening them. We are called to be sons of God by bringing peace into a world of enemies.


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matthew 5:9). The Christian is one who brings people together, who helps divided “sides” unite without expecting everyone to be the same, who speaks love into a world of black and white. “Love your enemies, and do good...and you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35).


The world’s factions don’t need us to join their sides, though of course, we are certainly allowed our opinions; they need us to bring the presence of the Lord into their midst and to speak truth that defies their limitations. We should remember that we will never have perfect answers to suffering and, on our own, cannot heal other people completely because Christ is the answer. He bears the burdens of our brokenness alone, but by being connected to Him and desiring to share His love with our broken world, He strengthens us to bear one another’s burdens through the Church.


We can and should be agents of unity and understanding because God has already united us to Him. "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:32).




Jesus has already given us so much; it’s time we give back to Him by giving of our compassion, our listening ears, a discerning spirit, and a spirit of unity over division.


Whether we are tempted to argue about politics or we struggle loving our family members we disagree with, we have work to do if we want to be a compassionate presence in a world in so much need of compassion. While it’s easier to join a side of an international, national, or even parish debate, it’s much harder to take the Christian action by listening and then speaking truth in love, instead.


When was the last time you posted something online in anger? Do you follow people on social media you disagree with? Do you pray for others before arguing with them? How can you bring peace into your corner of the world today?



Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a supporter. Your contribution can help us continue the work we’re doing.


Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages, genealogy, and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos


A New Way to Learn the Bible

Do you ever struggle to understand the Scripture?

The Church has a rich tradition that can help us understand the Bible (after all, the Church wrote it). Yet, for many of us, the Scripture seems inaccessible and hard to connect with.

Be the Bee” helped people engage with the deep and profound theology of the Church. And now we’re back with a new weekly series to help people connect with Scripture: “Live the Word.” 

Every Monday, we’ll cover the following Sunday’s Epistle and Gospel readings. We’ll end each episode with three challenging questions to help you work through what God has for you, in your life.

Every Thursday, we’ll post a short response to these questions, offering a vulnerable and personal look into how we struggle to know Christ and live Orthodoxy.  

We’re also posting short intros to each New Testament book, to help guide your reading. For example, we’ve released videos on the Gospel according to Saint Luke and Paul’s 2nd Epistle to Timothy.

These videos are the perfect resource for youth and young adult groups, Bible studies, and family devotionals. They’re a great way to help you and the people in your life wrestle with Scripture and open your hearts to God’s guidance and grace. 

And best of all, these videos will reflect on God's Word as we hear it proclaimed in the Sunday Divine Liturgy.

Thanks to “Be the Bee” and “The Trench,” Christians of every generation connected with the Church’s theology like never before. Many converts even joined the Church because of the series!

We pray that God will bear even more fruit through our new series: “Live the Word.”

New episodes premiere every Monday and Thursday. Make sure you subscribe to our YouTube channel and turn on notifications so you never miss a video.

Steven Christoforou is the Director of Y2AM.


Want more from Y2AMSubscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a supporter. Your contribution can help us continue the work we’re doing.


“Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Icon”

Until the recent rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to political prominence, Turkey’s secular Kemalist order had for decades remained largely unchallenged.  This changed with the stunning landslide election victory that swept Erdogan and the AKP into power in 2002, producing enormous excitement and hope inside Turkey and abroad for genuine democratization and progressive reform. 

The initial optimism that stemmed from the AKP’s rhetorical affinity for genuine democracy, civic liberty, and religious freedom has disappeared in the fifteen years since Erdogan and the AKP have established their dominance over Turkey.  The nationalist secular authoritarianism that characterized Kemalist republican Turkey has been systematically undermined and transformed.  However, Kemalism has not been replaced by genuine democracy, civic liberty, and religious freedom.  Instead, it has been superseded by a new nationalist Islamist authoritarianism.  This new Islamist authoritarianism, that has extended its influence, if not outright domination, over Turkish society and state, continues to cautiously pay homage to Kemal but increasingly, and now openly, draws its real inspiration and aims from an idealized version of the Ottoman imperial past.   

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman vision—encapsulated, in part, in the phrase, “Turkey: From Sarajevo to Baghdad,” unabashedly first promoted by his influential former foreign minister, Ahmet Davtoglou—is premised upon Turkey’s return to its former stature as a world power, a project Erdogan himself is leading.  Unlike Kemal and his secular nationalists who saw the Islamic theocratic system as the root of the Ottoman Empire’s inability to survive in the modern world, Erdogan regards the later Ottoman Turks’ drift away from Islamism as the direct cause of the empire’s decline and dissolution. 

Consequently, although Islam under the AKP has remained an instrument to be utilized by the state, in order for Turkey to reach its full potential, Islam must again play an increasingly decisive role in culture, public affairs, and the life of the state, just as it did in Ottoman times.  This neo-Ottomanism, of course, represents a reversal of the secular Kemalist system.  According to the neo-Ottoman project, Islam will be privileged and harnessed by the state to help restore Turkey to its rightful place as a global force and as the leading country within the Muslim world.

Like Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople, and President Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Erdogan, whom many observers describe as a president who acts like a sultan, recognizes the importance of symbols and symbolism for forging Turkey’s Ottoman revival.  Similar to Mehmet, who used his forcible conversion of the great Byzantine Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia to a mosque to showcase the superiority of Islam and the Ottoman Empire, or Kemal, who employed Hagia Sophia to demonstrate the secularization and modernization of republican Turkey, Erdogan has exploited Hagia Sophia to promote neo-Ottomanism and to mark his government’s public embrace of Islam.  In this sense, the AKP’s gradual re-Islamization of Hagia Sophia should be understood as a deliberate signal by Erdogan to the masses of his Islamist supporters of his commitment to realize a future in which Turkey, with Islam at the center of its public life, reigns supreme once more as a regional hegemon, a world power, and the leader of the Muslim community of nations. 

Given Turkey’s current neo-Ottoman orientation and its earlier provocations against the status of Hagia Sophia as a museum, the only thing surprising about the Erdogan government’s recent use of the historic Christian structure for Muslim religious purposes was that it produced any surprise at all.  The AKP’s consolidation of political power and its steady transition to Islamist authoritarianism has been accompanied by a corresponding campaign of incremental measures and steps aimed at the eventual conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. 

As early as 2013, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, informed reporters that Hagia Sophia would be used again as a mosque, opining: “We currently stand next to Hagia Sophia Mosque…we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”  In 2014, the Turkish parliament held exploratory discussions on how to change the status of Hagia Sophia in the future.  That same year, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom identified and condemned Turkey’s encroachment on Hagia Sophia as a “creeping conversion.”  Simultaneously, the United Nations expressed its disapproval, as it has many times since, over statements made by Turkish officials that have threatened the integrity of Hagia Sophia’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Undeterred by international criticism, Turkey has continued its aggressive policy of targeting Hagia Sophia.  This new phase of operations also witnessed a series of deliberate actions intended to insult and humiliate Turkey’s Orthodox Christians.  On April 11, 2015, one day before Orthodox Easter Sunday, a Quran recitation sanctioned by the Diyanet (the State Directorate of Religious Affairs), for the first time in 84 years, took place inside Hagia Sophia.  The following year, Turkish authorities appointed a permanent imam to Hagia Sophia.  The timing of the Diyanet’s announcement of the imam’s appointment was made on the same Sunday in November 2016 as Turkey’s Orthodox Christians celebrated the 25th anniversary of the enthronement of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I.

The AKP’s actions enjoy widespread popular support in Turkey.  Every May 29, increasingly extravagant celebrations of the conquest of Constantinople take place in Istanbul and across Turkey.  Leading up to May 29, endless barrages of television programs and films aimed at children and adults alike depict Greek Christians as treacherous and evil, provoking nationalist and self-righteous feelings of entitlement to Hagia Sophia as a mosque.  This sort of carefully stoked public “conquest mania” produced a mass rally of activists who gathered in front of Hagia Sophia on May 29, 2016, to demand that the building be converted to a mosque. 

A crucial step in that direction was taken on June 1, 2016, when the Diyanet announced that state television would broadcast a program, highlighted by readings from the Koran, from Hagia Sophia everyday during the month of Ramadan.  The first guest of the television program was Mehmet Gormez, the head of the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, who discussed the spectacular dome crowning Hagia Sophia and, with considerable imagination and invention, explained to a nation-wide audience of tens of millions the dome’s importance in Islamic history.  

Despite the annual revelries in May that celebrate the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the August and September commemorations that glorify the 1922 Turkish victory against Greece and the Entente Powers, Turkish nationalists, while sidestepping the genocide of Anatolia’s Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians, claim victim status for themselves.  Perhaps not surprising, albeit astonishing, Hagia Sophia is now being used to symbolize Turkey’s victimhood narrative.  In the view of Turkish nationalists, especially Islamist nationalists, the Ottoman Empire was a veritable paradise destroyed by Western imperialists and their Christian toadies within the empire.  Furthermore, because of Kemal’s eagerness to have the Republic of Turkey accepted into the modern Western community of nations, Ankara was supposedly cowed or coaxed by Turkey’s recent enemies into transforming Hagia Sophia into a museum. 

This nationalist myth concludes with the assertion that this mendacious manipulation by the Western Great Powers aimed to ensure Turkey’s psychological subservience to the West by denying the Turkish people the freedom to exercise their will over the most visible symbol and reminder of Turkish greatness and triumph: the Great Fatih, the “Great Conquest,” Mosque.  This popular narrative has most recently been expanded to incorporate the newly manufactured deception that claims Kemal never actually ordered the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum and that the state document and Kemal’s signature appearing therein that initiated this action are forgeries, a proposition Erdogan himself has publicly applauded. 

In coordination with the AKP, the ultranationalist Anatolian Youth Association, which has collected over 15 million signatures in support of its campaign to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque, summarizes this thinking: “Keeping Hagia Sophia closed is an insult to our Muslim population…it symbolizes our ill-treatment by the West.”  Voicing an alternative, even if declining, perspective, a prominent Turkish scholar, who, fearing retribution from Erdogan’s supporters, commented anonymously in a June 2016 interview with Al-Monitor: “the matter of Hagia Sophia has been manipulated shamelessly in the last decade.  They [Erdogan and the AKP] are feeding the dream of an Ottoman revival…for pious Muslims everywhere, it is really sad to watch this opportunistic propaganda.”     

Widespread popular acceptance of these inventive victimhood narratives has contributed to a commonly held nationalist view that Turkey’s actual sovereignty is suppressed by the Western powers and that Turkey’s freedom, ipso facto, cannot be realized until Hagia Sophia is converted once more to a mosque.  According to this perspective, only then can Turkey become truly independent and fulfill its destiny, which means only then can Turkey regain both the glorious Ottoman inheritance and neo-Ottoman future to which it is entitled and has been denied by the West.  Hence, in the hands of the AKP government Hagia Sophia has become an uncompromising symbol, an icon and tool to mobilize Turkish nationalism and legitimize neo-Ottomanism. 

Continuing this escalating trend, Ramadan, in June 2017, was marked by a tangible increase in the aggressive use of Hagia Sophia by Turkish officials for Muslim religious and state purposes.  Abiding by the long-established practice of Western appeasement towards Turkey, most European governments and Christian religious establishments remained silent.  Only Greece’s Foreign Ministry, the United States Department of State, and UNESCO issued serious rebukes against Ankara for its provocative actions.

The Islamization of Hagia Sophia, like the Islamization of Turkish society and state, under President Erdogan and the AKP does not merely represent a simple partisan contest between secularists and Islamists for the control of Turkey.  Likewise, the plight of Hagia Sophia constitutes more than yet another example of Turkish nationalist contempt for non-Muslims and their history, a perennial feature, after all, of Turkish rule, whether secular or religious.  Instead, the significance and purpose of the recent provocations against Hagia Sophia should be viewed, and can only be understood, from a perspective that takes into account both the symbolic and utilitarian importance of the Great Fatih Mosque for Islamist Turkish nationalists. 

For Islamist Turkish nationalists, Hagia Sophia stands as the most powerful, visible reminder of Ottoman Turkey’s might and glory, a rallying standard for a return to that former greatness, and a national icon to help forge neo-Ottomanism under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  It is a religiously charged symbol that is inseparable from President Erdogan’s Islamist ambitions and imagined destiny for Turkey in Europe, the Middle East, and the world.  Moreover, the veritable re-conquest of Hagia Sophia for Islam serves as an important expression of Erdogan’s vainglorious neo-Ottoman place for himself in history.  As noted in a July 17 Financial Times International article on the anniversary of the July 15, 2016, abortive coup against Erdogan: “His [Erdogan’s] narrative means that the rise of the Turkish nation and the future of the global Muslim community hinge on Erdogan as a person and a politician.  The implication is that, if you don’t support Erdogan, you are neither a good Turk or a good Muslim.”  In this sense, the exploitation and use of Hagia Sophia by Turkey’s authoritarian Islamist government stands as a bellwether, one the international community should not continue to ignore.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

“Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Ottoman Icon”

It is no small irony that across the globe the edifice and image most widely associated with Turkey, Istanbul, and even perhaps Islam, is a sixth-century Orthodox Christian church—the magisterial Cathedral of Hagia Sophia, or “Holy Wisdom.” Built by some 10,000 workers between 532 and 537, its patron, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, inaugurated the construction of Hagia Sophia in the imperial capital of Constantinople with the proclamation that the Church of the Holy Wisdom would be a cathedral like “one that has never existed since Adam’s time, and one that will never exist again.”

Remarkably, Justinian’s boastful claims proved to be as correct as they were visionary. For virtually a millennium, Hagia Sophia was Christendom’s largest, most revered and awe-inspiring church. Hagia Sophia was the unrivalled ecclesial hearth of the Christian Church before the Western schism, the physical epicenter of the Orthodox Christian world, and the wondrous, breathtaking symbol of Byzantine grandeur and purpose. Indeed, for both contemporaries and historians, Hagia Sophia constituted the greatest achievement of late ancient and medieval architecture, an enduring masterpiece that embodied Byzantine civilization’s quintessential, sophisticated respect and quest for symphony and balance between the ethereal and the physical, majesty and beauty, place and boundlessness, science and mystery, creative genius and humility. Despite Hagia Sophia’s present diminished and abused condition, it is not difficult for even today’s visitor to appreciate the description found in a famous Russian ambassadorial report sent from Constantinople in 987 to Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, of what one encountered upon entering the great cathedral: “We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.”

When Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, virtually all of the city’s surviving cathedrals and churches were—after being desecrated and thoroughly plundered—forcibly seized and turned over to the Turks’ religious establishment to be converted to mosques and used as Muslim properties. The conquering sultan, Mehmet II, personally oversaw the conversion of Hagia Sophia. Crosses were demolished and exchanged for crescents, altars and bells were destroyed, icons were burned or hacked to pieces, mosaics and frescoes depicting Christian imagery were plastered over, and most of the cathedral’s priests were killed or enslaved. In time, four colossal minarets were erected to surround Hagia Sophia, producing the iconic image that has come to be globally associated with Ottoman Constantinople and Turkish Istanbul.

Mehmet took great satisfaction in his belief that he had fulfilled Mohammed’s prophecy articulated in the Hadith: “Verily you shall conquer Constantinople. What a wonderful leader will her leader be, and what a wonderful army will that army be!” Thereafter, Constantinople and Hagia Sophia represented for the Ottoman Turks much more than merely their empire’s capital and preeminent mosque, respectively. The conquest of Christianity’s greatest city and church was understood by Mehmet and his successors as divine proof of the leading role in the Muslim world to which the Ottoman Empire was entitled, a belief also manifested by the Turks’ subsequent relocation of the Islamic Caliphate to Constantinople.

Indeed, the purpose for the construction of the massive minarets that now tower over Hagia Sophia was to project to the world Islam’s triumph over Christendom’s greatest empire, city, and church. The capture of Hagia Sophia confirmed and symbolized in the Ottomans’ imagination their belief in the superiority of their state and faith over all other nations and all religions, a putative affirmation of their providential role and destiny in history. Hence, the Ottomans formally dedicated their greatest, most celebrated single piece of loot—Hagia Sophia—as Great Fatih Mosque, or “Great Conquest Mosque.”

Despite the Turks’ conviction that their mastery over the great, coveted prizes of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia signaled their inevitable conquest of the remainder of Christian Europe, the Ottoman state showed signs of weakness by the sixteenth century and by the seventeenth century began a long, miserable decline and recession that culminated in the complete dissolution of their empire in the early twentieth century. Led by the Turkish nationalist, Mustafa Kemal, the Republic of Turkey, which emerged in the early 1920s to succeed the Ottoman Empire and to abolish the Caliphate, was premised on secularism. Kemal’s modern Turkey was a rejection of the Islamic theocratic system that he and his modernizing nationalists held responsible for the collapse of the old Ottoman order.

Kemalist Turkey did not, however, decouple Islam from its nation-building project. The Kemalist state’s efforts to create a homogeneous Turkish society included assigning a prominent role to Islam as a defining cultural feature of Turkish national identity, or “Turkishness.” In short, official “secularism” involved the use of Islam by the state as an instrument to impose conformity to a uniform model of “Turkishness.”

In modern Turkey secularism has produced neither freedom for all faiths nor separation of church and state. Instead, Turkish secularism has meant state control of religion through the official policy carried out by the Diyanet (the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, the governmental institution responsible for regulating and directing Islam in Turkish society). Likewise, the Kemalists’ non-Western, non-democratic version of secularism has also meant that Turkey’s non-Islamic religions and communities, inasmuch as they are regarded as impediments to universal “Turkishness,” are to be viewed with suspicion, treated with hostility, and subjected to a policy of steady, systematic persecution, with the goal being their final elimination.

Symbols and symbolism were, of course, very important to the Kemalist nation-building project. It was, consequently, neither a surprise nor a move that produced any resistance when Mustafa Kemal, presiding over Turkey’s one-party “secular democracy,” closed Hagia Sophia to Muslim worship in 1931 and reopened the historic structure as a museum in 1935. Just as Sultan Mehmet in the fifteenth century appreciated the symbolism of converting Hagia Sophia, the grandest of Christian cathedrals, to a Muslim Ottoman mosque for the furtherance of his imperial ambitions, President Kemal in the 1930s understood the symbolic value of transforming Hagia Sophia from a mosque—the quintessential iconographic symbol of the Ottoman Islamic past—to a Turkish museum for the advancement of his modern secular nation-building project at home and for the promotion of his country’s image abroad.

The second part, and conclusion of this essay, which explores the recent political and religious uses of Hagia Sophia by the current post-Kemalist, Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is forthcoming under the title “Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Icon.”

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.

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