The title is slightly disingenuous because, at the time of Russia’s baptism in 988, Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia wasn’t yet a mosque.
It was a majestic, ineffably beautiful cathedral, built during Justinian’s reign in the 6th century. That made Hagia Sophia the world’s second-oldest cathedral and easily the largest, which it remained for another 1,000 years.
Hence, by the time the Kievan Grand Duke Vladimir decided to stop worshipping the pagan god Perun, Hagia Sophia had proudly stood for 400 years. At that point, according to the Primary Chronicle, Vladimir decided to switch to an Abrahamic religion, but he wasn’t sure which one.
We don’t know how deeply Vladimir pondered comparative doctrines when weighing his options. Not very, would be my guess: the ruler was illiterate, which usually precludes a deep study of theological subtleties. He clearly needed help.
Hence Vladimir summoned emissaries representing Islam, Judaism, Western and Eastern Christianity and asked them to make the case for their religion.
The Primary Chronicle says that Islam was rejected outright because of its injunction against alcohol. “Drinking is the joy of the Rus’,” Vladimir is reported to have said. “We can’t be without it.” The conservative in me is happy to see that his legacy perseveres.
Judaism was unacceptable because, says the Chronicle, the Jewish emissaries confessed that their land had been taken over by the Christians. Actually, Palestine was ruled by the Muslims at the time, but the Primary Chronicle is a Russian document and therefore can’t be accused of pedantic attention to every casuistic detail.
Nor is it entirely trustworthy in its explanation of why Vladimir rejected Catholicism. The real reason was his enmity to the West, whose inchoate pluralism was repellent to the proto-Russians (as it remains to their descendants). However, the reason the Chronicle does cite rings true aesthetically, even though it’s probably apocryphal historically.
Vladimir is supposed to have sent his own emissaries to both German lands and Byzantium to compare the beauty of their cathedrals. The ambassadors’ reports were unequivocal: the German churches were fine in their own way, but the splendour of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople had taken their breath away.
One can understand how they felt, for the cathedral continues to have this effect on today’s travellers as well, even those jaded by exposure to the glory of Europe’s Romanesque and Gothic churches. I was certainly stunned when I first saw it, and by then I had seen most of the great cathedrals of Christendom.
Except that Hagia Sophia was no longer a cathedral in the 1990s, when its lofty beauty swept me off my feet. It was converted to a mosque in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople. Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the secular Turkish republic, turned Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935. And now, 85 years later, Erdoğan has made it into a mosque again as part of his drive to abandon Atatürk’s secularism.
I’d like to accuse Erdoğan of desecrating a great Christian cathedral, but that would be unfair to Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Byzantium in 1453 and first turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Fair game being an essential, if moribund, British virtue, we must give credit where it’s due.
Now London is the proud site of the West’s largest mosque, the Baitul Futuh. Built as it was in 2003, it doesn’t quite have the pedigree of Hagia Sophia, and nor can it rival its beauty – no temple can. However, it’s still the centre of Muslim worship in Britain, just as Hagia Sophia used to be the centre of Christian worship in Europe.
Hence, in the same spirit of fairness and out of my innate sense of balance, I propose that the Baitul Futuh be converted to an Anglican cathedral, providing a seat for the most multi-culti bishop in the Church of England (there are many to choose from).
Alas, should my proposal be acted upon, my imagination doesn’t quite reach as far as picturing the ensuing global outcry, and not just among the Muslims. The din would be thunderous, the accusations of white supremacy scathing, the gnashing of teeth dentally ruinous.
Nothing comparable is heard following yet another heinous crime perpetrated against the world’s most aesthetically beautiful and historically significant church. Reports in the papers are so dispassionate that one might think the conversion in question is that of, say, the Millennium Dome into a wholesale fish market. Possibly newsworthy, but at base no one cares.
We really don’t deserve to survive.