Oh the Places – Istanbul: Hagia Sophia

Reflections from Dr. Howell

I am taking a group of pilgrims to Turkey in September. Let me know if you’re interested! I love Turkey – even modern Turkey, of course, but the historical locations there are just stunning. We’ll go to Antioch and Tarsus (famous as the birthplace of early Christianity and Paul’s hometown), Ephesus (simply stunning), Pergamum (an evil city in Revelation, but really lovely ruins), Cappadocia (with its unforgettable landscapes) – and of course, Istanbul.

A huge metropolis (population 15 million!), Istanbul is one of the pivotal cities in all of history. Ancient Constantinople (same place!) became the epicenter of the Roman Empire after Rome itself crumbled, and we find ruins from those early days – and then the hub of early Christianity, where the first creeds and great eastern churches happened, through the Crusader period and into modern times. Gallipoli, the bold lunge by the Allies in World War I, features a remarkable cemetery with those who died from England to Australia – in Turkey. So much history.

The grandest architectural wonder surely is the Hagia Sophia, originally a massive church built by the emperor Justinian in the year 537, above the ruins of a previous spectacular church. So spacious, seeming to defy gravity, the largest cathedral and the biggest dome in the world for over 1,000 years. When Justinian saw it, he exclaimed (not very humbly! and thinking of the completion of the fabulous temple in Jerusalem) “Solomon, I have outdone you.” What people built, and who stunning such achievements can be, reveal so much about humanity, and the intensity and sometimes braggadocio of faith.

Of course, after the fall of Byzantium and the rise of the Ottoman Empire, Hagia Sophia was transformed into a mosque, with minarets on its 4 corners. Recently the Turkish government has re-anointed it a mosque after many years as a museum – not a hopeful sign (in my view of things).

The architecture is stunning. But then the mosaics on the walls, ceilings and domes take your breath away – as they did for the worshippers over many centuries. Recently, I read Nobel prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s remarkable novel The Books of Jacob – which reminds me how we can travel, not merely on an airplane or via a video or travel book, but even in a work of fiction, to places that matter. Tokarczuk creates a moving scene where Yente, an old, wise Jewish woman, following someone she thinks is the Messiah, as far as Istanbul, where she enters this great church. In awe, she gazes at and ponders a mosaic in one of the large domes of the virgin Mary. Her observations move me deeply – from a Jewish woman studying a Christian image in a Muslim building:

   When I spied on the wall a huge likeness of a woman who was furthermore brazenly staring in my direction, I was overcome by a kind of breathlessness I had never experienced. My heart started pounding. We sat on the cold hard floor. Slowly I regained my sense, and I was able once more to behold this wonder: The woman emerges from the wall, positioned high in the dome’s vault, over our heads, powerful. She is holding a child in her lap. But it is not the child that is important. Her mild face betrays no human affect except that which lies at the foundation of everything – a love that is absolutely unconditional. I know, she says, without moving her lips. I know everything, and nothing escapes my understanding. I have been here since the dawn of time, hidden in the smallest particle of matter, in the stone, in the shell, in the wing of an insect, in this leaf, in this drop of water. Split a trunk in two, and you will find me. Part a rock, and I will be there. This is what that enormous figure seemed to be saying to me. It seemed to me that this majestic person was revealing a painfully obvious truth, yet I remained unable to understand it.

I love to travel, and wish I were better at slowing down and just peering, carefully, contemplatively, at what’s on a wall, the art, the handiwork of believers and geniuses from ancient times. Such richness, such glimpses of the beauty that is in the heart and mind of God.



“Oh the Places You’ll Go” – my new series on places where God happens. Episode 4 is “Home: Nazareth, Magdala – and Dollywood.” You can still catch earlier episodes any time!

Pilgrimage to Turkey! Join us!

My sermon Sunday on Blessed are Those who Hunger & Thirst for Righteousness is on YouTube – or you can download a podcast.

St. Francis of Lithuania” is what I call my friend Regina Židonienė – who talked with me the other day about her amazing work with the poorest of the poor, and Ukrainian refugees in Lithuania. Enjoy! And be inspired!