Hagia Sophia and the Greeks

National Myth and Architectural Historiography

by Nikos Magouliotis

(1) An illustration from a Greek textbook depicting the "National Faith", with an allegory of Greece dressed like a Byzantine empress, holding Hagia Sophia on her lap, and surrounded by a crowd of weeping children, warriors, and angels. From I. Polemis, Νεοελληνικά Αναγνώσματα [...] (1924.)

On July 10, 2020, the New York Times reported on the reactions to the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque: Along with the concerns raised by art historians and conservationists, and the “chorus of dismay from religious and political leaders around the world”, the article mentioned that “the idea of converting Hagia Sophia back into a mosque prompted immediate pushback from Greece, which sees itself as the heir to the Byzantine Empire.”

This was a somewhat moderate description of the fanaticism that erupted in Greek media: On the same day, the popular Greek historian Eleni Glykatzi-Arveler appeared on national television to state the following: “For me, [the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque] is the Second Fall of Constantinople. If I hear that the mosaics of Hagia Sophia are crying, I will not be surprised. And I won’t ask for whom the bells toll mournfully… [They will toll] for all of Christendom.” The historian concluded her statement by affirming that “the Greek people will always say ‘Holy Mary, do not cry; with years and with time, [Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia] will be ours once more.’” This obscure comment was a direct reference to a well-known piece of Greek nationalist folklore: a 19th-century folk-song that prophesized an eventual Greek reconquest of Istanbul and Hagia Sophia, a myth that has been at the core of Greek religious fundamentalism and nationalism for about two centuries. 

Despite more sober statements by Greek political authorities – such as the minister of culture, Lina Mendoni, who warned about the reignition of religious and national fanaticism  – many endorsed a more aggressive stance: The church of Greece ordered that church bells all over the country should toll mournfully on the day of the first Muslim prayer in the space, and protesters in many places (especially in Northern Greece) held banners declaring the Hagia Sophia to be “a Christian Church” and images in which its minarets were photoshopped out.

The fabrication of the historical and ideological narrative that has allowed Greeks to consider themselves as the primary inheritors of the Byzantine legacy – or as the rightful owners of a monument that stands outside their current national borders – has, of course, begun long before current events.[1]

By going back to the 19th century, and to discourses of architectural historiography and nation-building in Greece, this essay sheds light on current events by referring to the diachronically complicated relation of the Greeks – the political and intellectual authorities of the modern-Greek nation-state and the national imaginary that they have cultivated – to the Hagia Sophia. By doing so, the article points to a particular paradox: Byzantine architecture was not immediately embraced as the national heritage of Greece, but only several decades after the foundation of the country in the late 19th century. This is compared to other European nation-states that embraced their medieval monuments as national symbols early on. The long and complicated process of this recognition reveals a fundamental difference not only in the Greek national imaginary, but also in the local epistemology between the local Byzantine churches and monuments (those that after 1830 stood within the Greek border) and the more distant (less tangible and more mythicised) Hagia Sophia. Last but not least, this same 19th-century discourse can, to some extent, explain why, in the early-21st century, several voices in Greece seem to be laying exclusive, “national” claims over a monument that is broadly considered to be a site of “World Heritage”. 

The historiography on Hagia Sophia in the early modern era – the process by which it was “discovered” by European architects and historians and inducted into the Western canon of architectural history, as well as the process of its material and symbolic appropriation by Ottoman Sultans – has been the subject of numerous studies.[2] As Ludovic Bender has shown, the discovery of the Hagia Sophia by Western architects was a long discourse that began in the late-17th century and continued until the 1830-40s. This latter period, which (as Bender argues) marked the beginning of a more systematic study and historiography of Byzantine architecture in Europe, coincides with the foundation of the Modern Greek nation-state in the 1830s.

The modern-Greek state was founded in the 1830s on the ideological premise of a re-birth of its Classical past.[3] This essentially meant that, for most of the 19th century, ancient Greek monuments were praised and protected, whereas any other built heritage – including Byzantine architecture – was, at best, treated as an object of lesser importance (and, at worst, dismissed as an unwanted “Oriental” miasma). At a time when European architects were beginning to be interested in Byzantine architecture and to study it systematically – be it in Ravenna, Venice, Istanbul or in different locations in Greece, the architects and intellectual authorities of the modern-Greek nation-state appeared to be unwilling to embrace these buildings as worthy of study and preservation. A Royal Decree issued in December 1837 by Otto, the Bavarian King of Greece, grouped the Byzantine churches of Athens together with Venetian and Turkish monuments (placing them all under the broad label of “medieval relics”) and commanded their preservation for the rather vague reason that they “add to the curiosities of the capital” (“αυξάνουν τα περίεργα της πρωτευούσης”). Yet the decree in reality did little to prevent the abandonment and dilapidation of Byzantine churches in Athens throughout the 19th century.

The “discovery” of Byzantine architecture in Greece – its treatment as an object of study and of artistic value – began in the 1830-40s, but it had originally little to do with Greek architects and historians. It was initiated by the observations of a small number of French architects and antiquarians such as Abel Blouet, André Couchaud, and Albert Lenoir, who wrote the first articles and books on the subject.[4] And I say “a small number” because the majority of European antiquarians, who traveled to Greece in the 19th century in search of Classical ruins, continued to show little interest in Byzantine relics; very often they scorned them and at times they even had a hard time understanding them. The Byzantine churches of Mystras, for instance, (which would be studied and admired by French, Greek and other archaeologists in later years)[5] were dismissed by Chateaubriand in 1811 as a “confused mixture of the oriental kind, and of Gothic, Greek and Italian style”.[6] In the 1830s things changed: French architects and archaeologists began to develop an interest in Byzantine architecture in Greece. But, at the same time that the Lyonnais architect André Couchaud was publishing in Paris what is considered the first book on the Byzantine churches of Greece, for Greek intellectual circles of the mid-19th century, Byzantium and its architectural heritage was still a highly controversial matter.[7] Many saw the Byzantine churches of Athens as the miserable and tasteless leftovers of an unwanted Oriental past, and argued for their demolition whenever they hindered the construction of new streets. “What is Byzantine ecclesiastic architecture?” wondered one Greek historian, only to give an answer that echoed Chateaubriand’s aforementioned dismissal: “the ruins of the ancient art, rather irregularly composed with one another; the Roman arch on the Greek column”.[8]

The problem of Byzantine architecture in Greece was not only a matter of preserving its ruins, but also of emulating its style in new designs: the predominant style for new public and private buildings in 19th-century Athens was neo-Classical. The few neo-Byzantine designs that appeared in the Greek capital provoked strong reactions from locals. At a time when a neo-Byzantine design for the Cathedral of Marseille by Leon Vaudoyer began construction in 1852, a neo-Byzantine scheme for Athens Cathedral provoked heated opposition. Originally designed in the 1850s by Greek architect Dimitrios Zezos following the requests of the Bavarian King Otto for a “Greco-Byzantine” building, its Byzantine style was further accentuated by the French architect Florimond Boulanger in the 1860s. But these designs were met with fierce resistance and criticism in the local press, and the structure was eventually recast in a more neo-Classical style. Another example is the architect Theophil Hansen, who worked in Athens and designed several of its main public buildings almost exclusively in a neo-classical style, and only built projects in a neo-Byzantine style after leaving Athens and moving to Vienna: for instance, the city’s Arsenal – now the Museum of Military History – or, more notably, the Orthodox Church of Holy Trinity in the Fleischmarkt area, designed in a strikingly neo-Byzantine style for the Greek community of Vienna. The story of the commission and design of each of these buildings definitely needs a closer investigation, but these incidents point to the following conclusion: while Byzantine architecture was part of the acceptable vocabulary of forms for historicist architects in many European cities, in Athens it remained an illegitimate or questionable stylistic choice at least until the end of the 19th century.

Alongside the numerous articles dismissing and ridiculing the Byzantine churches of Athens, around the 1850s and -60s, the Greek daily and weekly press also published a number of articles, also by Greek authors, which praised the architectural splendor and religious importance of Hagia Sophia, meanwhile protesting its contemporary use as a mosque and the interventions of Ottoman authorities in it. This sudden rise of interest in Hagia Sophia among Greek authors had been sparked by the work of historians like Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos and Spyridon Zambelios who, through their books, managed to incorporate (the previously rejected) Byzantine middle ages into the narrative of Greek national history, framing it as the middle period that joined Classical antiquity and the modern present into a cultural and historical continuum. One of the many side-effects of this historiographic and ideological paradigm shift was that Hagia Sophia became, for the Greeks, a national symbol of equal magnitude as the Parthenon. But the contradiction remained: whereas Greeks lamented the fate of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, many still scorned the numerous Byzantine churches within their own national borders and paid little attention to their dilapidation.

But even Hagia Sophia was not unanimously accepted as national and religious heritage by the Greeks in the 19th century. Adamandios Korais – a man whose writings laid the foundation of a modern-Greek national conscience in the early 1800s and fuelled the war through which the Greeks gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s – was famous for rejecting the heritage of Byzantium and its monuments. In a text called “Dialogue between two Greeks” (“Διάλογος Δυο Γραικών”) published in Venice in 1805, Korais staged a conversation between a Christian commoner (Kleanthes) and a didactic enlightened intellectual (Aristocles), in which Hagia Sophia was scorned as the indulgent and over-costly work of an Oriental despot – the kind of leader that an Enlightened nation should never wish for. Discussing the issue of churches, Kleanthes expresses admiration for Hagia Sophia and the hope that a Christian sermon will take place in it someday. Aristocles rushes to educate him on the history of the construction of Hagia Sophia, and to point out that, in order to raise funds for this majestic construction, emperor Justinian (as well as Constantius before him) made significant cuts from the salaries of teachers and funds otherwise destined for the development of the arts and the sciences. To the shock of Kleanthes, Aristocles gives the final ideological blow to the Byzantine monument by saying: “The glorious edifice of the Hagia Sophia, my friend, is the reason why neither you nor many of us [modern Greeks] can understand the wise language of our forefathers.” And then adds: “Whoever [of our rulers] today dares to spend for the construction of luxurious temples the funds that are needed for the foundation of schools and the feeding of teachers, ought to be locked up where they lock up fools and maniacs.”[9] To understand the importance of this accusation, a comparison with parallel central-European discourses is helpful: In his famous text “Von Deutscher Baukunst” in 1773, Goethe laid the foundation of German nationhood by projecting it onto the Gothic cathedral of Strasbourg, and thus paved the way for many European architects embracing Gothic architecture in the 19th century. Conversely, Korais used Hagia Sophia as the negative example of “Oriental” indulgence and backwardness, using it as a cautionary tale that warned the emerging Greek nation to avoid the mistakes of its past. 

This outlook accounts partly for the fact that Greek intellectual authorities caught up with the Europeans’ interest in Byzantine architecture with a significant delay, at the end of the 19th century. This change occurs in the 1880s, when Georgios Lambakis founded the Greek “Christian Archaeological Society” (1884), an Athens-based group aimed at the study and protection of Byzantine antiquities in Greece.[10] But even then, Byzantine churches were not unanimously accepted as architectural monuments worthy of preservation. The most famous example of this is the case of the 11th-century church of Kapnikarea, whose position in the middle of a main axis of modern Athens (Ermou street) had sparked continuous complaints from the 1830s onwards. Despite rising awareness of the value of such monuments (as evinced by the foundation of Lambakis’ Society in 1884), the Greek press was still full of articles arguing for its demolition; such as the following satirical poem, entitled “To Kapnikarea” and published in the magazine “Το Άστυ” as late as 1889:

My holy church, jumping out like a filthy stick in the middle [of the street], worshiped only as an antique, and unfairly taking up such a place. 

My holy church, for you, the whole world is a mess; we have all lost our sense, and every man has their own opinion.

My holy church, our Mayor himself we will bring to you, as a golden offering, if only you could listen to our sorrow and perform this little miracle:

Just as the workers will try to uncover your foundation, may your walls tremble, all at once, and may you become a ruin within the hour!

Thus, you will be our aid, in getting rid of this ugliness. And we, who have suffered beyond belief, will save ourselves from all this noise![11]

Nowadays, Greek architects and the broader public appreciate the value of local Byzantine monuments. This is largely due to the work of later generations of architects like Aristotelis Zachos, Anastasios Orlandos, and Panayotis Michelis, whose writings and teaching in the first half of the 20th century established Byzantine architecture as part of the teaching curriculum in Greek architecture schools, and as a key component of Greek architectural heritage. But the fact remains: long before it was embraced by Greek intellectual authorities, Byzantine architecture in Greece and elsewhere was already an object of international interest. And while many European architects and antiquarians were discovering, documenting, and investigating Byzantine monuments in Greece, the Greeks (at least until the beginning of the 20th century) remained ambiguous towards them.

But let us return to the monument that is at the center of recent media debates: The thematization of Hagia Sophia in the Greek national and historical imaginary has little to do with its architecture and materiality and more with the religious and territorial symbolisms that have been projected onto it. What I want to argue is that Hagia Sophia – and, to some extent, Byzantine architecture in general – has entered the modern-Greek historical conscience and discourse not through architecture and archaeology (and other material artifacts), but through folklore and the nationalist narratives that drove ethnography in the 19th century. 

A key moment for this occurred during the 1820s (during the Greek War of Independence), through the transcription and publication of an alleged oral tradition (to which Eleni Glykatzi-Arveler referred in her statement): a 19th-century Greek folksong recounting the events of the Siege of Constantinople in 1453, and focusing on a scene in which Christians lament the loss of Hagia Sophia to the Muslim besieger and try to salvage the church’s holy relics. At the end of the song, the Virgin Mary weeps over the Ottoman conquest of the city, the church, and its relics, but a voice from the Heavens reassures her: “Hush, Virgin Mary, don’t cry, don’t shed your tears; with years and with time, they [the grounds of Constantinople, the church of Hagia Sophia and its holy relics] shall be Yours once more” (“Σώπα, κυρία Δέσποινα, μην κλαίης, μη δακρύζης· Πάλε με χρόνους, με καιρούς, πάλε δικά σου είναι”).[12] Paraphrased to the plural first-person – “Ours once more” (Πάλι δικά μας θα’ναι), – so as to appeal to the national “We”, this last verse of the folk song went on to become the leitmotiv of Greek nationalism and irredentism for the following century.[13] Rooted in a purported popular tradition, this slogan fuelled the ambition of a Greek reconquest of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia, and the former territories of Byzantium from the 1820s to the early-20th century (and several wars and hostilities of Greece towards Turkey). This ambition was put to a definite halt in the 1920s; but Glykatzi-Arveler’s evocation of this old piece of nationalist folklore in her recent statement indicates that such ideas still resonate with a part of the Greek public. 

The first publication of this folksong – the first transcription of this purported oral tradition – was made by the Frenchman Claude Charles Fauriel in a collection of “Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne” published in 1824-5, in the midst of the Greek Independence War. Fauriel claimed that the song was at the time “known in all parts of Greece”.[14] The fact that he himself had never actually set foot in the country (and only collected Greek folk songs through what others who lived or traveled there would send him in written form ) should be enough to raise suspicions about the originality and validity of this purported oral tradition.[15] But the song’s compliance with the illusions of national grandeur nurtured by both the Greek revolutionaries of the 1820s and the cultural elite of the subsequent modern Greek nation-state erased all potential doubt. This allowed the song, along with its conception of Hagia Sophia as an object of national desire, to enter the canon of Greek folklore. In the decades that followed Fauriel’s book, it was reproduced with small variations by the founding fathers of Greek ethnography, Spyridon Zambelios and Nikolaos Politis, as well as many more of Greece’s most respected philologist-folklorists.

We could perhaps conjecture that, at least until the early-20th century, more Greek ink was spilled over the aforementioned folk song and other popular lore surrounding Hagia Sophia, than over the material reality, history, and architectural and artistic features of the actual building.[16] Being outside the national border, Hagia Sophia could not be examined from up close like other Byzantine churches that were situated inside the country. In lieu of material artefacts, Hagia Sophia appealed more to Greek scholars in the field of philological folkloristics (the ethnographic academic field that examines oral traditions) than to those working in architectural history or medieval archaeology. As such, Hagia Sophia is not a typical architectural monument with a physical presence, but rather a “monument of the word” (“μνημείο του λόγου”). This latter expression – “monument of the word” was coined by folklorist Nikolaos Politis at the end of the nineteenth century in his attempt to distinguish the rather elusive and immaterial objects of his work (folk songs, fairy-tales, etc.) from the more concrete material artifacts examined by archaeologists.[17] For Politis and for many scholars around him, oral popular traditions were as important as material relics. And thus, the collection of folk songs, fairy-tales and other popular sayings about Hagia Sophia were equally important as the study of the building itself. One could perhaps understand Politis’ conception of the “monuments of the word” as precursors to what UNESCO would in later years call “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. But in the 19th century, such ideas were defined along national lines and didn’t go as far as what UNESCO defines (for Hagia Sophia and many other sites) as “World Heritage”. For the Greek historical imaginary (and for a large part of Greek scholarship), as it was forged in the 19th century, Hagia Sophia is less as a monument of international and transcultural historical significance and artistic value, and more the object of a “local” tradition, and of a quasi-national and quasi-religious desire and entitlement. It is ultimately more “Ours” than anybody else’s.

A good example of this concept is a book published in Athens in 1918, titled “The symbols of National Faith - Constantinople and Hagia Sophia” (“Τα σύμβολα της Εθνικής Πίστεως – Κωνσταντινούπολις και Αγία Σοφία”). The book was essentially an anthology of previous writings on Hagia Sophia by Greek authors from the 19th until the early 20th century – by the aforementioned Zambelios and Politis, among many others – in which historical accounts were juxtaposed with nationally charged and obscure folklore: from a petrified Byzantine emperor coming back to life to re-conquer Constantinople, to half-fried fish refusing to die until the city returns to Christian hands. (Needless to say, the aforementioned folk song about the Siege of Constantinople and the prophecy of it becoming “Ours once more” features prominently in the pages of the book, as well as its cover, where one can read the phrase “I’m yours once more” (“Πάλι δικά σας είμαι [sic]”) in quotation marks, under the title.) The book does contain a couple of historical accounts about the construction of Hagia Sophia, but not much architectural analysis. Essentially, it tells us little about the architecture and the art of Hagia Sophia, but a lot about its authors and how they perceived the monument.

Those in Greece who feel “personally” or “nationally” affected by the transformation of Hagia Sophia (back) into a mosque, and who cry out or imply that this is “Ours” more than anybody else’s, ought to reflect on the following:  We can now appreciate this monument because of an international dialogue of scholars who studied it from up close, deciphered its history and unveiled the value of its art and architecture. Until more recent years, Greek authors limited themselves to the reproduction of national folkloric myths for internal consumption and contributed little – or, at least, no more than others – to the international archaeological and historical discourse that made Hagia Sophia the valuable historical artifact that it is today. On top of this, and before we lay national claims on a monument that stands outside our national borders, we also ought to be reminded that, for almost a century, some of Greece’s most famous authors and intellectuals (as well as, presumably, much of the broader audience) rejected Byzantine monuments, within and beyond the Greek borders, as something profoundly other and alien. 

It is important to acknowledge that recent events are not the subject of a bilateral national feud, but of an international debate; and that the Turkish government’s decision pertains to interior crises and political maneuvers, or to broader geopolitics that surpass the Greco-centric (nationalist and irredentist) view of Istanbul and Hagia Sophia. Even if we wanted to reduce what is currently happening to a history of Greek-Turkish relations in terms of the treatment of religious monuments, perhaps we ought to begin by counting how many traces of Muslim history that existed on ancient and medieval monuments within Greece have been removed, erased or silenced; or how many (historical and modern) mosques in Greece have been demolished, locked up, turned into museums (whose curation does little to highlight their Islamic history and artifacts), cinemas (whose occasional screening of “adult” film content has been more disrespectful than any Muslim prayer in a former Christian church), bars, or even warehouses. A recent survey, made by Turkish architect Mehmet Almin Yilmaz, has shown that in 18 different countries all over eastern Europe, all in the former territories of the Ottoman Empire, 329 works of Islamic architecture (mosques, masjids, Sufi lodges, and tombs) have been converted into churches. Greece is at the top of the list, with around 100 constructions: in different parts of the country, 74 mosques, 19 tombs, 1 imaret, and 2 prayer halls were converted into churches, and 5 minarets have been converted into bell towers. In the face of recent Greek reactions about the re-conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, Turkish media raises awareness about the chronic mistreatment of Muslim religious monuments by Greek authorities.

In the face of recent events, and of the numerous imaginary claims of ownership over a monument that lived through centuries and bears the marks of different peoples, I am reminded of Lord Byron’s “The Siege of Corinth” (1816), a poem inspired by his first visit to Greece, a few years before the Greek Independence War would trigger the gradual territorial shrinking and eventual collapse of the Ottoman Empire. In this poem, set in Corinth, Byron describes a battle between Greeks and Turks inside a Byzantine church, creating a poetic scene which, even though incredibly gory and violent (and quintessentially Orientalist), makes for an interesting allegory of the intermingling of cultures and architectures in the former lands of the Ottoman Empire. At the end of the poem, as the battle peaks, a Greek warrior called Minotti blows up the church with dynamite. Pieces of the church and the bodies of the two armies are blown into the air. When they land, they form a ruinous landscape formed of piles of architectural parts and human limbs of Muslims and Christians; a landscape in which (as Byron describes) not even the mothers of the fighters can distinguish one from the other: 

When old Minotti's hand

touched with the torch the train–

'tis fired!

Spire, vaults, the shrine, the spoil, the slain,

the turbaned victors, the Christian band,

all that of living or dead remain,

hurled on high with the shivered fane,

in one wild roar expired!


Up to the sky like rockets go

all that mingled there below


Down the ashes shower like rain;

Some fell in the gulf, which received the sprinkles

with a thousand circling wrinkles;

Some fell on the shore, but, far away,

scattered o'er the isthmus lay;

Christian or Moslem, which be they?

Let their mother see and say!


Not the matrons that them bore

could discern their offspring more. 

Evidently, Byron spectacularizes a rather violent (fictional or actual) event. And the opinions he held of Greeks and Turks were quite different. But the image that his poem creates – that of a complicated and indistinguishable intercultural pile of architectures and human lives, inspired by the mosaic- and spolia-filled architecture of Byzantine churches – presents an opportunity for a symbolic conceptualization and for an understanding of the interwoven history of different cultures on the architecture of religious monuments (whether Muslim or Christian) in the territories of the former Ottoman Empire. Selecting pieces from this pile, or removing others, in order to reconstruct pure (imaginary) national or religious pasts is pointless; our heritage is this complicated pile.

Reading a famous Orientalist aesthete’s verses as the solution to issues of heritage preservation in the former Ottoman Empire in the early-21st century can certainly lead to many problems or dead-ends. But if we see the aforementioned poetic scene as a symbol of cultural hybridity, and not simply as the cliché of the “Orient” as a “mosaic” of cultures and religions, then we understand that what Byron wrote is not far from some more sober approaches to the issue of Hagia Sophia by modern historians of architecture. Gülru Necipoğlu, for instance, has summarized the history of Hagia Sophia as a sequence of material, cultural, and religious transformations: "The church that Justinian had built to commemorate the triumph of Christianity by incorporating into its structure marbles and spolia from pagan monuments thus came [after 1453] to represent the glory of Islam through new spoils of victory [added by Sultan Mehmed II]."[18] The same idea – the importance of the transcultural hybridity and co-habitation of different symbols and cultures in Hagia Sophia – was evident in the statement issued by ICOMOS Turkey in response to the recent events. Reminding us of the previous state of Hagia Sophia as a museum, the authors of the statement wrote: 
The decision taken in 1934 by Atatürk and his cabinet members for the Hagia Sophia to become a museum reflects the worldview of the Republic of Turkey and its interpretation of ‘common cultural heritage’. Secular Turkey opted for the museum function, to allow for scientific research that would inform the best way to safeguard a monument of universal value and present it in the best possible way. With the transformation to a museum, the artistic attributes of the monument that had previously been covered over were once again made open and visible. This function allowed the figured mosaics and calligraphic plates to stand side by side in peaceful co-habitation. The mihrab, pulpit, sultan’s gallery and lecterns, which had been added for use as a mosque during the Ottoman period, were preserved in situ, and the Hagia Sophia was presented for the people from around the world to visit as a monument reflecting our multi-layered history.

Instead of reproducing harmful stereotypes of “Oriental barbarism”, “Turkish provocations”, or national and religious myths of Hagia Sophia for internal consumption, we ought to spend our time reading the many interesting things written by our Turkish colleagues as well as researchers from around the world.[19] We have, still, a lot learn about the history of this monument – and especially about its long history in the Ottoman world, which is largely ignored by Greek historiography – in order to understand that it is not, and will never be “ours once more”.

Nikos (Nikolaos) Magouliotis is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta) at ETH Zurich. 

***An earlier version of this essay was published in Greek, in Archetype magazine (August 13, 2020).


[1] A fundamental study in this field (which has largely inspired this article) is Michael Herzfeld’s book Ours Once More: Folklore, Ideology, and the Making of Modern Greece (1986). For a more recent analysis of the competing “nationalisms” or “imperialisms” expressed over the Hagia Sophia controversy, see this article by Akis Gavriilidis.

[2] To name a few: Ludovic Bender, "Regards sur Sainte-Sophie (fin XVIIe - début XIXe siècle): prémices d'une histoire de l'architecture byzantine", Byzantinische Zeitschrift 105.1 (2012): 1-28; Gülru Necipoğlu, “The Life of an Imperial Monument: Hagia Sophia after Byzantium”, in Mark and Çakmak (eds), Hagia Sophia: From the Age of Justinian to the Present (1992.),195-225; Robert S. Nelson, Hagia Sophia, 1850-1950: Holy Wisdom Modern Monument (2004).

[3] Yannis Hamilakis, The Nation and its Ruins: Antiquity, Archaeology and National Imagination in Greece (2007), 57-123.

[4] I am currently working on a paper on this topic, due for publication within 2020 in the Journal of Architecture, as part of a special issue on the architectural historiographies on the peripheries of Europe, edited by Petra Brouwer and Kristina Jõekalda.

[5] See for instance: Kostis Kourelis, "Byzantine Houses and Modern Fictions: Domesticating Mystras in 1930s Greece", Dumbarton Oaks Papers 65-66 (2011–2012): 297-331.

[6] F.-R. de Chateaubriand, Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem [...], vol. 1 (Paris: Le Normant, 1811), 91. 

[7] A. Couchaud, Choix d'Èglises Byzantines en Grèce (Paris: Lenoir, 1842). For a more thorough analysis of the debates around the heritage of Byzantium in mid-19th-century Greece, see: Φ. Δημητρακόπουλος, Βυζάντιο και νεοελληνική διανόηση στα μέσα του δεκάτου-ενάτου αιώνος (1996).

[8] Παύλος Καλλιγάς, “Φιλολογικόν σχεδίασμα περί των συλλογών και κανώνων της Ελληνικής Εκκλησίας” [originally published in 1840], in: Παύλου Καλλιγά – Μελέται Νομικαί, Πολιτικαί, Οικονομολογικαί, Ιστορικαί, Φιλολογικαί, κλπ. [...] (1899), 305-306.

[9] Α. Κοραής, Τι πρέπει να κάμωσιν οι Γραικοί εις τας παρούσας περιστάσεις; Διάλογος δύο Γραικών κατοίκων της Βενετίας [...]. (Βενετία, Εκ της τυπογραφίας Χρυσίππου του Κριτοβούλου, 1805.), 25-27.

[10] It should be noted that this happened years after academic chairs for such topics had already been founded in French and German universities. Lambakis first studied Theology in Athens, and then he went to Germany in order to study Christian Archaeology. The latter is indicative of the underdevelopment of Christian Archaeology in Greek academia at the time. And the former explains the religiously-charged and often obscure way in which he wrote about Byzantine architecture.

[11] Δόν και Χώτος [sic], “Στην Καπνικαρέα”, Το Άστυ 207, October 9, 1889.

[12] C.-C. Fauriel, Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne, Vol. 2: Chants historiques, romanesques et domestiques (Paris: Firmin-Didot, 1825), 338.

[13] For more on this idea, see Herzfeld, Ours Once More.

[14] Fauriel, Chants populaires de la Grèce moderne, Vol. 2, 337. 

[15] Α. Κυριακίδου-Νέστορος, Η Θεωρία της Ελληνικής Λαογραφίας - Κριτική Ανάλυση (2007), 74-5.

[16] I am referring to publications made by Greek authors within Greece; it should be acknowledged, however, that there were several relevant publications about Hagia Sophia and its history and material reality by Greek authors living in Istanbul or elsewhere; from the anonymously published [attributed to Constantios] Κωνσταντινιάς Παλαιά τε και Νεωτέρα (Venice, 1824) to Alexandros Paspatis’ Βυζαντιναί Μελέται (Istanbul, 1877).

[17] See Herzfeld, Ours Once More.

[18] Necipoğlu, “The Life of an Imperial Monument: Hagia Sophia after Byzantium”, p. 204.

[19] See, for instance, the forum "Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque" hosted by the Berkley Center at Georgetown University; and "An open letter on the status of Hagia Sophia" posted on Medium (June 30, 2020). 

Author Acknowledgments

I am grateful to Konstantina Kalfa, Richard Wittman, and Emily Neumeier for their careful comments and corrections on previous versions of this text. I am also thankful to the editors of Archetype magazine in Greece for publishing a version of this text in Greek; and to Esra Akcan and  Peter Christensen for inviting me to present a small part of it on a digital panel organized by the Einaudi Center for International Studies at Cornell University.  

The present article is part of my doctoral research on the historiography of Byzantine and Vernacular architecture of Greece in the 18th and 19th centuries, at ETH Zurich/gta, under the supervision of prof. dr. Maarten Delbeke. My understanding of this topic and the present essay owes a lot to the work of authors like Michael Herzfeld, Eleni-Anna Chlepa, Kostis Kourelis, Fotis Dimitrakopoulos, and many others whose work has laid the groundwork for a critical historiography of Byzantium and Byzantine architecture in 19th- and 20th-century Greece.


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