The Empire that was …

The trip to the 7 churches of Revelation was a wonderful experience and has given me much to ponder on. I haven’t had time to blog the last part of our trip to Istanbul as I’ve been on retreat in the beautiful Alpsfollowed by a week’s holiday(thanks to a some very kind friends lending us their chalet).

Istanbul ‘s history reaches back  to at least 657 BC when it was founded as a Greek city. After the Roman’s conquest of the city it was chosen in 330AD to be the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and was renamed Constantinople after the Roman Emperor Constantine. What is often forgotten in our Euro-centric history is that when historians declare the fall of the Roman  as 410AD (when Rome was conquered by the Goths) or 476AD when the final ‘Roman’ Emperor was deposed this was only part of it. The Roman Empire continued in the East, reaching its height in the 6th century under the Emperor Justinian when it ruled not only the traditional Eastern part of the Empire but also North Africa, much of the Balkans as well as all of Italy and Southern Spain.

Justinian also built (and rebuilt) many major buildings including the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (the greatest Cathedral in Christendom for 1,000 years) and the Basilica of St John at Selcuk amongst many other buildings. So, we can say that the Roman Empire didn’t actually finally fall until 1453 when the Ottomans finally captured the city (though I shall continue to call the Empire the Byzantium Empire!).

Valens Acqueduct, Istanbul

Valens Acqueduct, Istanbul

Of course, many of the Cathedrals and churches were turned into Mosques by the Ottomans but in the 20th Century some of these were made into museums (especially the Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church) and where the Byzantine mosaics were covered up some have been uncovered – and some of them are spectacular and very imperial in their design. It is also so easy to bump into ancient monuments as you walk through this once imperial city (like this 2nd century acqueduct a short walk from our hotel).

And this is where the problem for me sets in. When we were visiting the 7 churches and their ruins it was very obvious that the church John was writing to had no buildings, no great central halls to meet and worship in. They met in peoples houses and the people were mainly poor and at the margins of society. It was these people who “turned the world upside down”. Instead of being “embedded” into one people group they transcended all divides and ethnic groupings. The monuments of Byzantium (and indeed of places like St Paul’s Cathedral) are incredibly impressive – but they are monuments of Empire. The Roman and Byzantine Empire enlisted Christianity to support their Imperial aims and Christianity submitted.

I quoted a letter from Pliny in an earlier post about how he tortured two female slaves who were leaders of the early church. He wrote his letter to the Emperor Trajan in 112AD. In part of his letter he wrote this:

For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farm

He goes onto say how the Temples had almost been deserted! And this is within 20-30 years after John has written his letters to the 7 churches as part of the Book of Revelation. The impact of the church was radical and extensive and reached out to all parts of society and allowed anyone to become leaders and was a threat to the Empire in which it grew.

Even though Istanbul is a monument to empire (Byzantine and Ottoman) it is a vibrant lively city and I must say I loved it! I’m sure that if you’ve been you will know that it is a fascinating city – with things to discover all over the place. Of course, one of the reasons that the capital of Turkey was moved to Ankara after World War I was to move Turkey away from the idea of an Imperial Empire and towards a secular and nation state which didn’t hark back to its Imperial past.

The Kadesh Treaty between Egypt and the Hittites - the oldest treaty known to humanity

The Kadesh Treaty between Egypt and the Hittites – the oldest treaty known to humanity

We were staying in a small hotel not far from the centre and as usual I did tend to do my own thing – though I did do the Hagia Sophia, Chora Church and the Blue Mosque with the group. But whilst they looked at the Bosphurus by boat I went to the Archaeological museum (a real treasure trove if you ever go to Istanbul). Unfortunately, my memory card was so full that I could take only one photo but it was an amazing collection of ancient artefacts from the oldest peace treaty in the world (between Egypt and the Hittites), the oldest love poem in the world and some great artefacts from some of the places that we had visited. Also met a great American couple, Michael and Judy, who were in Istanbul for a peace conference (that was to have that well known peacenik David Petraeus at it(Author of the surge policy in Iraq)! Then instead of the Grand Bazaar I went to the Sultan’s Palace (massively packed and huge queues – though the best bit was the Harem – amazing tiles and decorations – and not very busy!).

All in all a great stay and a really useful contrast between the Empire of Istanbul and the lives of the early church in the 7 churches with their simplicity and lack of power and grandeur.

So, some of my photos of the different places in Istanbul I visited (usual tip: click on a photo to see a larger view and quite a few of them have further descriptions of what you are viewing)

Firstly, there is the amazing Hagia Sophia. This was an Imperial Cathedral built in the 6th century and the largest Cathedral in the world for nearly a thousand years. When Constantinople fell in 1453 to the Ottoman’s it was changed into a Mosque (an imperial one of course!) and the mosaics removed or plastered over. Since it became a museum in the 1930’s some of the mosaics have been uncovered. Mosaics were a Byzantine speciality and where they were superior to the earlier Roman period (whereas much of their other art seems less advanced). Notice the Imperial nature of the mosaics and how Christ is co-opted to bless its rulers!

The second place was also a church that was converted into a mosque and had all its mosaics covered up, Chora Church. Like the Hagai Sophia it too has been made into a museum and even more of its mosaics have been restored. It shows how mosaics were used to tell biblical stories (a bit like stained glass was in the UK in the middle ages)

Then, there was the Blue Mosque built in the early 1600’s and borrowed some of the elements of the neighbouring Hagia Sophia. Since Muslims do not allow images they created a wonderful pattern based style to decorate their mosques – and especially these large classical mosques

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Imperial city without an Imperial palace. So, my next set is of the Topkapi palace. The palace of the sultans of the Ottoman empire. There are three courts and some amazing jewels in the treasury(for which you have to queue ages for and can’t take pictures). There is a sacred relics room (separate post in a day or so!) and the Harem (which you have to pay extra for but is one of the best parts of the palace and far less crowded).

One final place was the Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus (or now known as the Little Hagai Sophia mosque). A beautiful building and surrounded by an arts and craft area (that used to be a madrasah). Far fewer tourists and a very peaceful setting.


5 comments on “The Empire that was …

  1. Donna
    July 1, 2013 at 3:47 pm #

    Hi Will,

    Thanks for these thoughts and further insights into your trips.

    I’ve been wondering about something, arising again from your comments here. The coincidence of lack of ecclesial buildings and the effectiveness of the early Church’s presence has clearly struck you – but I wonder whether this necessarily shows a causal connection between the same lack of buildings and effectiveness of the Church? The early Church simply hadn’t yet built its buildings, while the radical spirit naturally surrounding the immediacy of the Christ-events, still so close to the living memory of the faithful, does I think count for some of that effectiveness and focus and fervour. I’m not sure it necessarily follows that buildings = problem (!) Buildings as sacred spaces (which you clearly appreciate from your photos) may be as much blessing as ‘curse’ to a faith, I think. I’m just wondering whether the connection you spot between Church fervour and lack of building is more an historical circumstance (and in that sense ‘accidental’) than a causal link – if you see what I mean…?

    Blessings for your adventures!

    • Will Cookson
      July 1, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

      Hi Donna,

      I quite get what you are saying.

      Firstly, I would make a causal link between Imperial buildings and the lack of effectiveness. I think that too many of the great cathedrals that I saw (and I include in this country) can be seen as trying to prop up Imperial power and I think that is a problem – or maybe to be slightly more correct – imperial power co-opts the Christian (or other) faith to prop up its claims – so you can see this in the Hagai Sophia mosaics – and when that power declines so all too often can the faith that becomes difficult to disentangle.

      Secondly, I think I am saying that I love these cathedral buildings as art and that they are beautiful as such. I don’t really see them in terms of sacred space – as you know I’m not really into the concept of sacred space much – I think its more of an OT category!

      Thirdly, I don’t think that I think that all buildings fall into this category but we do need to take care in how much we invest into them.
      Finally, you say “The early Church simply hadn’t yet built its buildings, while the radical spirit naturally surrounding the immediacy of the Christ-events, still so close to the living memory of the faithful, does I think count for some of that effectiveness and focus and fervour”. As I said in my last post the Chinese church is a church that has massively grown without the structures and buildings. You could also look at early Methodism with its preaching in the streets and fields and its class-system.

  2. Donna
    July 1, 2013 at 7:29 pm #

    Hi Will,

    This is really interesting – reminds me of a quotation I once heard to this effect – the issue isn’t so much that the West is now post-Christian but that Christianity must become post-Western (Donovan?): and the point, I think, was that Christianity never ought to have become so distinctively Western, so almost exhaustively identifiable with Western cultural accretions that as these cultural phenomena phase out so too do the Christian truths associated with them…. so yes, I agree that the marriage of gospel and culture (good) where the gospel is subsumed into a culture so as to enforce the latter’s goals and perspectives (not so good) is dangerous and detrimental to faith.
    Having said that, does it follow from the observation that ‘imperial power co-opts the Christian (or other) faith to prop up its claims’ that religious buildings have this danger built into their nature? Isn’t this rather the unhealthy consequence of their being misused? Blemishes on the leaf do not necessarily mean the rose is rotten to its core. But I’m not being fair (!) I know you weren’t pushing your point that far!
    That’s a very interesting point about sacred space – I can see how it feels more OT than NT (NT being more God is Spirit and to be worshipped in Spirit and Truth / Christ is the atoning sacrifice = Church is the living Temple, etc.) and yet I still sense that spaces can have distinctly sacred qualities – maybe ‘only’ insofar as they evoke our consciousness of the sacredness of all spaces, of all creation (they are icons) – remind us of the sacramentality of all being – I think it’s no harm in our world to shape spaces where the light falls differently, even if only to remind us of (or awaken us to) that inner space which responds to outer mirrorings. But maybe that’s a question more of spirituality than ecclesiology…
    Thanks for engaging 

  3. Will Cookson
    July 1, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    It is an interesting area of discussion and I’m probably more radical than most but I think that the idea of Sacred Space and especially as in a building finds very little (if any) support in the New Testament.

    In John 4 when the woman at the well disputes about space and place says:

    “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. ….But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

    In Revelation 21 there is no temple in the new Jerusalem. Peter and Paul both refer to the people of God as being the temple.

    I suppose I would therefore argue that it is the people of God that are sacred and that therefore all places become Holy. It may mean that we enjoy one place more than another (so I like retreats on mountains!). The danger about imperial buildings is that they become buildings that are taken over or co-opted “for the glory of God” but really they are for the glory of the imperial power. We marvel, like the disciples at the Temple, but I do believe that God sees them differently.

    I think that we therefore do have to be careful about buildings. I remember the minister of a church like Springfield that was given a church building by the diocese – he said that he had never had such arguments about colour schemes and decorating of the building before – he found that a lot of energy that had gone into people suddenly went into the building.

  4. Donna
    July 2, 2013 at 2:25 pm #

    Hi Will,
    I agree with the balance here – and I do think this is probably more a matter of spirituality than ecclesiology. It is not helpful that we call a building a/the ‘church’. And buildings certainly can become exhausting distractions (well I know it). But for all my own experience and struggle with this I still think it is elevating and inspirational to have places which are sculpted to lift and enlighten our hearts and minds (why else go to the mountains?).
    Yes, we can worship anywhere (as the scripture concerning space/place/Temple/New Jerusalem so strongly suggests). (Interestingly the sense of future promise in the Revelation passage and ‘a time is coming when’ suggest to me that aesthetic spaces may remain more useful to us now as incarnate beings seeing partly). And, in line with what you’re saying, I personally veer away from identifying a particular building or physical place as having ‘more of God in it’ than another place, even if the ‘sacrament’ (now maybe I’m already moving the goal-posts too far) is reserved there. Partly because this suggests to me an under-realised pneumatology (an unrealised sense of the radical extent to which Christ is present in all places and times in virtue of the presence of the Holy Spirit). And partly because I recognise in that reserved sacrament a special sign reserved in that place which does not so much sanctify that space as mark that place out as symbolising (strongly) a sacramentality that belongs to the whole world as Christ has redeemed it, and most especially where the kingdom is breaking in. Barbara Brown Taylor (episcopal priest) in ‘An Altar in the World: Finding the Sacred Beneath our Feet’ talks about how what happens/is recalled on the physical altar in bread and wine is a sign of what is happening in all space and time where Christ is present. So I think what I’m saying is that there is sacred space which is sacred not in the sense of being exclusively sacred but in the sense of being symbolically capable of conveying the sacredness of all space and time. The ‘air’ is thinner? The space is more iconographic than other space?
    B.B. Taylor says this too – I think you’ll agree:
    “As important as it is to mark the places where we meet God, I worry about what happens when we build a house for God. I am speaking no longer of the temple in Jerusalem but of the house of worship on the corner, where people of faith meet to say their prayers, because saying them together reminds them of who they are better than saying them alone. This is good, and all good things cast shadows. Do we build God a house so that we can choose when to go and see God? Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours? Plus, what happens to the rest of the world when we build four walls – even four gorgeous walls – cap them with a steepled roof, and designate that the House of God? What happens to the riverbanks, the mountaintops, the deserts, and the trees? What happens to the people who never show up in our houses of God?”
    I think there being little support for something in the NT does not necessarily tell against it, so long as there isn’t a contradiction (heresy) set up where this thing meets the scripture. But within the spaces left untouched by the danger of heresy there is surely room for imaginative manoeuvre – and that’s where spirituality I think comes into play, and quite simply, for some people light and stone and lines and liturgy will clarify and deepen their sense of God’s presence in the whole world (again, buildings can be icons), will refine their vision and tell that Christian story, while presumably for others what such places offer will not be worth what the danger of their corruption makes possible. But in some places and environments in our world an aesthetic of beauty that is specifically shaped to tell the Christian story will be an incredible relief from more tortured surrounding landscapes, an icon of hope, the beginning of seeing newly. There has to be a gift to us there. What we choose to make of it – that’s another thing.

    Please don’t feel you have to reply again – I think a sabbatical should release you from the prospect of unending debates with the curate!

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