Hagia Sophia at Ground Zero

contribution by Benjamin Anderson

[1] Design for the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church at the Ground Zero Site, 2012, Santiago Calatrava Architects & Engineers. 

[2] Site map, National September 11
Memorial & Museum, 28. August 2015.
Photo: author.

Today when visitors exit the 9/11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan, they look across a deep pool that occupies the footprint of the south tower of the World Trade Center towards an active construction site. Plans distributed across the memorial relate that this platform will soon host “St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church,” and a sign stretched across a chain-link fence on Greenwich Street displays an architect’s rendering of the building in progress. [Figs. 1 & 2] 

Those who were paying attention in Art History 101 will notice the basic similarity between the church in the drawing, whose single broad dome rests on four massive pillars, and Hagia Sophia. [Fig. 3] A more elaborate connection between the two structures is asserted by a video hosted on the website of the man who designed St. Nicholas, Santiago Calatrava. The video opens with a view of Hagia Sophia from the southwest. The four minarets have been removed and the dome is crowned by a cross, while the mausolea of the Ottoman sultans remain in the foreground. This rendering morphs into the model of the church held by its imperial patron, Justinian, in the Byzantine mosaic that stands above the building’s southwestern entrance. The view expands to take in the entire mosaic, with the Virgin and Child at center and the emperor Constantine offering a model of his city at right. The Virgin and Child are then transformed into a series of increasingly abstract watercolors executed by Calatrava himself that culminate in the design of St. Nicholas. 

[3] Hagia Sophia. From Guillaume-Joseph Grelot, Relation nouvelle d’un voyage de Constantinople (Paris: Pierre Rocolet, 1680).
The church’s patrons in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America have also drawn a connection between the two buildings. As Archbishop Demetrios explained to the New York Times: “What attracted the committee... was that Mr. Calatrava had been strongly influenced by Hagia Sophia, the magnificent sixth-century Byzantine basilica in Istanbul that was converted into a mosque and then, in 1935, into a museum.”

[4]  From Atlas of the Borough of Manhattan
(New York: G. W. Bromley & Co., 1916).
New York Public Library, Lionel Pincus
and Princess Firyal Map Division.
Calatrava’s new construction rises near the former site of an older church of St. Nicholas, located at 155 Cedar Street. [Fig.4]  At the beginning of the new millennium, this building stood as a remnant of nineteenth-century Manhattan, an erstwhile house that had also served as a tavern and was purchased early in the 20th century by Greek immigrants. St. Nicholas had managed to survived the urban renewal projects that destroyed the surrounding urban fabric, [Fig. 5] and its incongruously modest profile stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center until 2001, when the south tower’s collapse leveled it completely.

[5] St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, 1998. Photo: jaydro (Panoramio).

For the last fourteen years, the Greek Orthodox congregation of lower Manhattan has been housed in a church across the river in Brooklyn. As with all matters related to the redevelopment of Ground Zero, discussions of the rebuilding of St. Nicholas quickly left local needs behind to dwell instead on questions of symbolism and propriety. By 2010, an essentially financial dispute between the archdiocese and the Port Authority had become entangled with the national controversy around the proposed Islamic community center at Park Place (often polemically described as the “Ground Zero mosque”). An assistant to the archbishop stated: “We have people that are saying, why isn’t our church being rebuilt and why is there... such concern for people of the mosque.” In 2011, George Demos, a congressional candidate from Long Island, launched a petition to “rebuild [the] ground zero church first,” expressing the hope that future generations might “look back with pride that our nation stood up and defended our Judeo-Christian values.”

These statements positioned the new reconstruction of St. Nicholas as a maneuver in a contest between Christianity and Islam, an interpretation that persisted even after the dispute between the archdiocese and Port Authority had been resolved. When Calatrava’s winning design was made public in 2013, a spokesman for the archdiocese stated that “the dome, invented by the Mycenaean Greeks, was a Christian form of architecture that was borrowed by the Islamic world. There are going be some wonderful teachable moments down the road.” These statements may have been influenced by the simultaneous campaign led by Turkish religious conservatives to reopen Hagia Sophia for Muslim worship, a movement that culminated later in 2013 when the deputy Prime Minister referred to the building as the “Hagia Sophia Mosque.”

[6] Hagia Sophia with the equestrian
statue of Justinian. Cristoforo
Buondelmoti, Liber Insularum Archipelagi.

The Hagia Sophia that stands today in Istanbul was built in the aftermath of catastrophe, a violent uprising brutally suppressed by the Emperor Justinian in 532, in which thousands died and the monumental core of the Byzantine capital was torched. Justinian stamped his monogram on the capitals found in the interior of the new church and set his equestrian statue on a monumental column beside its dome, turning Hagia Sophia into a kind of monument to his own victory over the rebels. [Fig. 6] Procopius, the emperor’s court historian, proposed that the new church was so beautiful, that if someone had shown the inhabitants of Constantinople a model of it before the fire, they would have demanded that their old church be destroyed right away, so that it could be replaced by the new structure. Hagia Sophia was not only a marvel of engineering and aesthetics: it also represented an attempt to control the meaning of the event that had cleared the ground for its construction.

The analogy to St. Nicholas is by no means precise. Most importantly, those responsible for the construction of the new church had nothing to do with the destruction of its predecessor. Nevertheless, the new St. Nicholas, like Hagia Sophia, represents an effort to inflect the meaning of the preceding catastrophe. For the representatives of the archdiocese and their political allies, the new St. Nicholas is meant to establish the priority of Christianity in the commemoration of 9/11. As an ancillary benefit, it employs a prominent piece of real estate to claim the design of Hagia Sophia as innately Christian (and Greek).

[7] St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, construction site, 28. August 2015.
Photo: author.

We can choose, however, to draw a different lesson from the history of Hagia Sophia. In the centuries after Justinian’s death, Byzantines began to produce legends that downplayed the emperor’s role in its construction, thereby converting it into a monument that met their own needs, not his. Some ridiculed Justinian, relating his jealous reaction to the popularity of the building’s true architect, who cleverly evaded the emperor’s attempts to have him killed. Other stories had nothing to say about the emperor, but tamed the overwhelming monumentality of his church by focusing on intimate particulars: the pier where an angel appeared to the architect’s son, for example, or the fountain in which pilgrims found a cup that they had lost while bathing in the River Jordan.

Legends like these transmit a wise patience, an understanding that the efforts of the wealthy and powerful to fix the meanings of events and monuments are misguided, since familiarity and the rhythms of daily use will produce accounts more enduring than the intended and official. In this sense, we have every reason to welcome, and to participate in, the creation of a new Hagia Sophia at Ground Zero.

BENJAMIN ANDERSON is Assistant Professor in the Department of History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University.

Citation: "Hagia Sophia at Ground Zero," Benjamin Anderson, Stambouline (September 16, 2015). http://www.stambouline.com/2015/09/hagia-sophia-at-ground-zero.html.


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