You didn’t build that!

hg1So it seems as though the Turkish Cultural Community of Austria has a problem with Lego. You know, that little company from Germany that we either grew up building or that we currently buy our kids. My son must have every set of their Ninjago line in existence. The problem in Austria has to do with the Lego Star Wars set of Jabba the Hutt’s palace from Return of the Jedi. Now the Austrian Muslims have two issues, one being that Jabba uses a hookah and lives in a domed structure. Now I’m not going to delve into any issues of how Jabba the Hutt may compare to any kind of Muslim or person of Middle eastern descent, but I will take some issue with the Lego model of Jabba’s palace being compared to a mosque. The issue here is that the Austrian Muslims are basing this comparison primarily on the Hagia Sophia or Church of holy Wisdom in Istanbul, the city formerly known as Constantinople.

Here’s the rub, the Hagia Sophia was built by Christians for Christians. It was the first cathedral ever built. For nearly 1000 years it was the largest church in the world (eclipsed by the Seville Cathedral in 1520). The great church was the brainchild of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. There was a first Hagia Sophia which was completed in 360 AD. It was burned to the ground during a riot in Constantinople after St. John Chrysostom, the Patriarch of Constantinople, was exiled due to a conflict with emperor Arcadius’ wife, Eudoxia. A second church was built by emperor Theodosius II in 415 AD, but it was also burned to the ground (along with many other buildings) in riots aimed at Justinian and his corrupt advisers. Although the rioters failed to usurp Justinian, his corrupt officials were dismissed. Viewing the smoking city, Justinian saw his chance to remake the city according to his vision.

What would follow would be the greatest church ever built to that point in human history. Trusting the work to two men, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, the cathedral was finished in just five years. Two teams of 5000 men were raced from each end. Upon entering the church for the first time, Justinian legendarily remarked: Solomon, I have surpassed thee. The Hagia Sophia became not only the center of Christendom but the beating heart of the empire as well. All emperors after Justinian, save one, would be crowned there. During dire times, the people of the city would look the great church for solace and inspiration. Protected by the great land walls that surrounded the city, the Hagia Sophia reigned over the empire until gunpowder and cannons found their way into the hands of the Ottoman Turks. The walls were finally breached on May 29, 1453. Three days later, the Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. Its glorious mosaics were plastered over, and the altar removed.

In 1935, it was converted to a museum and by Turkish law, religious services or praying was outlawed. Regardless of what you call it, church, mosque or museum, the Hagia Sophia’s massive domes and revolutionized architecture, and inspired the onion domes of Russia and many a Islamic mosque. Any attempt by the Turkish Cultural Community or anyone else for that matter to claim the Hagia Sophia as a piece of Islamic construction is just plain wrong. If you want to someone to blame for any similarities, go see either George Lucas who created Star Wars or Disney who owns the franchise now. I don’t often find myself quoting President Barak Obama but in this case his words are spot on: Muslims, you didn’t build that. Christians did. It’s design has for sure been copied, but if anyone deserves to be upset at Lego, its the Greek Orthodox Church. They are the inheritors of Byzantium, and the history of their culture, liturgy, and in this case, their architecture.


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