What if Obama wants to Build Hagia Sophia in Washington DC?

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD

Hagia Sophia (/ˈhɑːɪə sˈfə/; from the Greek: Ἁγία Σοφία [aˈʝia soˈfia], “Holy Wisdom“; Latin: Sancta Sophia or Sancta Sapientia; Turkish: Ayasofya) is a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. From the date of its dedication in 360 until 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople,[1] except between 1204 and 1261, when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire. The building was a mosque from 29 May 1453 until 1931, when it was secularized. It was opened as a museum on 1 February 1935.[2]

The Church was dedicated to the Logos, the second person of the Holy Trinity,[3] its dedication feast taking place on 25 December, the anniversary of the Birth of the incarnation of the Logos in Christ.[3] Although it is sometimes referred to as Sancta Sophia (as though it were named after Saint Sophia), sophia is the phonetic spelling in Latin of the Greek word for wisdom – the full name in Greek being Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, “Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God”.[4][5]

Famous in particular for its massive dome, it is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture[6] and is said to have “changed the history of architecture.”[7] It remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years thereafter, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. The current building was originally constructed as a church between 532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and was the third Church of the Holy Wisdom to occupy the site, the previous two having both been destroyed by rioters. It was designed by the Greek scientists Isidore of Miletus, a physicist, and Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician.[8]

Ottoman architecture borrowed to some degree from the architecture of of Hagia Sophia and each ruler or Sultan established his legacy by building a mosque, bigger and better than his predecessor.  The two most celebrated mosques in Istanbul are the Blue Mosque also known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque, built by Ahmed I (1590-1617) and the Suleymaniye Mosque, built by Süleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566), both a part of Istanbul’s unmistakable skyline.

The Blue Mosque

The design of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the culmination of two centuries of both Ottoman mosque and Byzantine church development. It incorporates some Byzantine elements of the neighboring Hagia Sophia with traditional Islamic architecture and is considered to be the last great mosque of the classical period. The architect has ably synthesized the ideas of his master Sinan, aiming for overwhelming size, majesty and splendour.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, after his success in several spheres, seems to be inclined to outsmart the Ottoman Sultans and has announced his intention to build the biggest mosque in Istanbul.  Reuters reported and I quote from the Huffington Post:

Tayyip Erdogan has described his third term as Turkish prime minister as that of a “master”, borrowing from the celebrated Ottoman architect Sinan and the last stage of his storied career after apprenticeship and graduation.

It’s a lofty allusion.

Sinan’s 16th-century creations came to define the Ottoman Empire at its apogee, the Suleymaniye Mosque, built for Sultan Suleiman, part of Istanbul’s unmistakable skyline.

Now, entering a second decade at the helm of a country reveling in its regional might, Erdogan wants to leave his own mark on the cityscape with what will be Turkey’s biggest mosque, a “giant mosque,” he says, “that will be visible from all across Istanbul.”

To be built on the highest hill on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, planners boast the structure will hold up to 30,000 worshippers and bear six minarets taller than those of the Al-Masjid al-Nabawi, or the Prophet’s Mosque, in Medina.

I would be delighted to see another beautiful mosque in Istanbul on my next trip, but, there is a little catch!

U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

If President Barack Obama decides to build the largest cathedral or Hagia Sophia in Washington DC, near Washington Monument in the National Mall, all Americans would be up in arms, as we believe in a principle called separation of Church and State.  If Obama were to have such ambition, he will also have to build at the same time the world largest mosque, synagogue, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh and atheist temples as well.

Washington Monument in the National Mall

In our global village we need all countries to follow this cherished principle of separation of religion and state.  If Erdogan has plans to use his own funds then no one can or should stop him, but, until then he should not go on the slippery slope of gradually pushing Turkey into a theocracy.

Erdogan is just a convenient example today, but, the fact of the matter is that almost every political leader is constantly tempted to pander the the religious majority in his or her country or constituency.  It is a temptation hard to fight, as it offers a lot of low lying fruit.

But Erdogan could learn from the experiences of Prime Minister Zulifqar Ali Bhutto, who blurred the boundaries of separation of Mosque-Church and State, in 1970s, which gradually over the decades has led to the fanaticism of Talabanism of today, in Pakistan.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt once famously said, “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.”

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