Hagia Sophia

by Phil Masters

For God shall bring every work into judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

– Ecclesiastes

The streets of Istanbul bustled with life as Father Simon Bellari made his way through the autumn heat. Few of the passers-by gave the priest any attention; the Turkish conquerors walked in pride and self-conscious dignity, and took his plain robes for merely another Christian style, their significance neither comprehensible nor important to a good Muslim, while the conquered Greeks were careful not to attend to anything more than was necessary, especially not anything involving foreigners. The Turks doubtless knew that Christian priests of any kind were unlikely to carry weapons, and felt no need to be concerned beyond that fact. The Greeks, noticing that Father Bellari’s robes were not those of their own priests, likely considered that any involvement with some foreign sectarian would draw them into trouble and danger.

And so, Father Bellari went ignored when he paused, and peered closely at the stone wall of a substantial house. The wall was marked by a faint dark stain near the level of the road, and Father Bellari murmured a quiet prayer as he reached out a hand to touch the discoloration.

Then, he moved his hand away, crossed himself, and whispered a second prayer. The first had been a humble request for guidance; this was a prayer for the salvation of men’s souls. As he had guessed, the stain was blood, and it required no divine inspiration to guess that it was most likely three years old. That long since, the city had fallen, and its streets had run red, its defenders – even the last Emperor of the Romans himself – slain by Turkish swords.

And still, the city bears the marks of slaughter.

Father Bellari shook his head slightly. Those defenders’ souls had passed to their reward – or, perhaps, to punishment, though death in battle against the heathen was surely a source of sanctity. At best, prayers might aid a few of them a very little in Purgatory. For now, he had other concerns.

Three streets further on, he found the house he sought, and then the small side door where he might be admitted unobserved. He was met by a porter, a tall, swarthy, impassive man with a long, curved dagger in his belt and clothes that marked his employers as wealthy. Father Bellari spoke a few words in Greek, and the porter silently led him to an inner room, where the master of the house sat on a low couch.

“Sit, my friend, and be welcome.” The host was dark as his porter, poised and keen-eyed. His manner was of one accustomed to negotiation and courtesy, and Father Bellari seemed to feel himself being measured and memorized.

The priest placed himself carefully on another couch. It was not a style of seating to which he was accustomed, but to one who had trained for ten years in a monastery, such concerns were unimportant. His host gestured, and a silent servant placed a goblet by his hand. Father Bellari recalled this land’s laws of hospitality, and took up the offered drink. It was water, cool, perfectly clear, and so far as he could judge, extraordinarily pure.

“My thanks, Saracen.” He met his host’s level gaze with his own.

“Please. That is your people’s word. I take it to mean a Turk or somesuch, and I am not of this city’s rulers. Nor am I of the Arabians, which is the other thing that you of Europe so often seem to assume, although I take it as no insult to be taken for one of the nation of the Prophet. You must know what I am.”

“My apologies, Persian.” Father Bellari spoke carefully, while contemplating this subject. It came to him that a nation which had stood against Alexander the Great, and whose Emperor Cyrus was honored in the Bible, might well have its own sense of dignity. “I know that you come to this city as an ambassador, and I understand that you are something more.”

The Persian said nothing for a moment, giving Father Bellari time to look around the room a little as he sipped the water. The place was as richly appointed as any European would expect of a lord of the East, with rugs and silks and lamps of gilded brass. The wall behind the master of the household took the form of an intricately carved screen, and Father Bellari wondered if there was some further space beyond – if the master might even observe visitors in this chamber while remaining unseen himself.

“So much is true.” The Persian’s voice was level and precise; his Greek was perfect. “I come here to observe what the Turks might do with their new conquest, and to seek knowledge. But it appears that some knowledge is no longer to be found here.”

“And so you request aid.”

“It is said that some knowledge has been carried to the west. Some knowledge of Divine Wisdom.” The Greek words were precise and familiar to both men; Hagia Sophia.

“That is true.” Father Bellari contemplated his goblet for a moment. “Even ten and twenty years ago, it required no prophecy to see that this city was doomed to fall. The Turks grew stronger each year, and the princes of Christendom were quarrelsome as ever, and unwilling to give their aid. Rome had little sympathy for schismatics, and the patriarchs of the Eastern church seemed at heart more willing to pay taxes to the Sultan than to reunite with the Throne of Peter.” Father Bellari paused again. “I will not judge them for that. It is not my place. But it was clear that books which had been held in this city for a thousand years might be safe here no longer.”

“So it was judged. And so they were born to the safety of your land.”

The Christian priest nodded. “There were embassies sent in those days – last efforts to find some unity between the two churches. Many scholars came to Italy. It was all quite easily arranged.”

“And you have studied those texts. It is even said, by some, that you know more than any Greek scholar.”

“No.” The priest’s reply was reflexive. He drew breath before he continued. “It is not that I am wiser that the Greeks. It is simply that the monastery where I first studied held other texts – some captured from idolaters and heretics, some preserved from the days of Rome itself. I had been permitted to study these, with due caution.”

The Persian nodded. “And you have a certain sensitivity, perhaps. So I am told.”


“So fragments merged, and the unity thereof was an understanding of the Divine Wisdom.” He smiled slightly, for the first time since Father Bellari had entered the room. “Then tell me what you know of this great church which the Turks have taken in the name of the Prophet.”

“That would take too long. It has stood for nearly a thousand years – and there was a church on that site before Justinian.”

“The Emperor who built it. Ah yes, I have read what his secretary wrote of him. Both in public and in private.”

“So have I. It is all lies and libels, I think,” Father Bellari said, “but there are more secrets and strange tales from that age than you or I may ever know, Persian. And now, Justinian’s great work is being torn apart.”

“Merely transformed for the use of those who worship God in another way. He has many aspects.”

“It is certain that God is infinite and unknowable. But that church was built in the name of ancient truths, not your Prophet.”

The two men locked gazes, and each saw unbending faith in the other’s eyes. After a moment, the Persian spoke again “Such disputes are for another time, I fear. What is certain now is that the Turks are not, perhaps, acting with complete wisdom.”

“Which, you have hinted in your letters, may be a source of danger. Can this work not be halted?”

The Persian sighed. “Not by anyone who we can persuade. Remember, our secret alliance only exists at all because neither Persia nor Rome could be certain of holding back the barbarians of the great steppes. And the Sultans are still at heart conquerors from the high plains.”

The priest nodded. The alliance, initiated in the days when Rome’s emissaries had travelled eastwards in search of the mythical Prester John, had survived the centuries because various factions from Andalusia to Delhi recognised an occasional need, but in all the centuries, it had never actually attained much power. It was a society of letter-writing scholars, and only a very little more.

“I must examine this transformation myself,” Father Bellari declared.

“Were my letters, and my agents’ accounts, not sufficient?”

“I make no criticism. But in some matters, the word is not enough. Direct experience may be the only path to the full truth.”

The Persian sat back, apparently bemused by Father Bellari’s sudden forcefulness. But then, seemingly after a moment’s meditation, he nodded. “Well and good. Our influence extends that far at least. You may examine the place after dark, when the work has ended for the day.”

The conversation continued for a few minutes longer, as arrangements were made, and then the priest took his leave. After he had gone, the Persian sat for a moment in thought, then spoke in his own tongue.

 “Is it courage, or vanity, that we see in this Christian?”

“It is faith.” The reply came in a woman’s voice, from behind the carved screen at his back. “Faith is mighty, and sometimes dangerous – to someone.”

“But is it sufficient?”

“Remember that many Christian saints are also martyrs.” The woman’s voice sounded almost amused. “Which does not make them any less saintly.”

The night of the day after his conversation with the Persian, Father Bellari slipped quietly through the streets of the city once again. Coming to a small door at the back of the great Church of the Divine Wisdom, he looked around, and then found that, as he had been promised, the door was unbolted. Stepping through and fastening it behind himself, he paused, first drawing a small lantern from within his robes, and then murmuring a brief prayer for guidance.

Then he moved on, noting the absence of watchmen or guards but wondering only for a moment how this had been accomplished. Secular power, he knew, could remove secular obstacles. It was when he stepped into the central space of the building that he stopped in his tracks, and found himself speaking aloud a line from the Psalms.

“Glorious things are spoken of thee, O City of God.”

Almost a thousand years ago, Justinian’s architects had thrown up this great dome in a mere few years. It was impressive when seen from the outside, but there, one could see the rising volume of walls that buttressed it; the dome was merely the highest point of a massive structure. From within, however, even lit only by a paltry lantern and a little moonlight coming through its high windows, it was a towering, breathtaking space. The Turks, driven by a contempt for all hints of idolatry, had worked to cover all the remaining ancient mosaics, and torn down all the icons, but even in this stark and battered guise, the beauty and power of the design was unmistakable.

So, to Father Bellari’s trained awareness, sharpened by a night and a day of meditation, fasting, and prayer, was something more.

He advanced towards the center of the space, not even looking as he stepped around workmen’s benches. His voice was raised in a prayer of exorcism that grew to a chant – a chant which echoed around the domed space, but which seemed almost drowned by the faint, indefinable sounds which rose in reply.

The moonlight coming through those high windows seemed to shimmer, and Father Bellari stopped, and raised his lantern.

“Even now, this place is the house of God. No unclean thing may reside here.”

There was no reply audible to human ears, and yet, Father Bellari reacted after a moment as though to speech.

“It matters not what stood here before there was a church, or Christian saints or kings to build churches. For God was before all things, and no power is greater than that of God.”

Again, there was no audible reply; and yet there was, it seemed, a response. The cold silver moonlight flooding through the high windows grew vastly stronger. Father Bellari extended his arms to either side, casting away his lantern, which shattered on the floor; the sound of its breaking seemed muffled, and its extinguishing made no difference to the light which flooded the domed chamber. Father Bellari gazed into the unnatural moonlight, and repeated his words.

“No power is greater than that of God. However ancient, however worshipped, nothing that is not of God may reside here.”

Now, a sound did become audible. It seemed to Father Bellari as though it might be the summary of all the chanting which had filled that space for a thousand years, harmonious and cacophonous all at once. He thought to hear Greek words in that sound, but also other languages, their nature strange and archaic. He raised his own single voice, seeking to match the sound with a Latin prayer of exorcism; although he could never drown it, he hoped that he might surpass it. And yet, his prayer was lost in the greater sound.

Then, it came to the priest that God did indeed have an infinity of aspects. Knowledge of some of them was ancient beyond measure, and few were safe for man to look upon. Ceasing his exorcism, he began instead a prayer for mercy, not for himself, but for this age of the world, wherein too much was lost.

And then the silver moonlight became more than the ancient church might hold, bursting back outwards through the windows and even through the bolted doors of the great church in a silent detonation. Watchmen two streets away saw, and cried out in terror, and fell to their knees. Janissary guards at the Sultan’s palace glimpsed something, and paused in momentary confusion, before their discipline asserted itself, and a force was rapidly dispatched to determine what had befallen.

But by the time the Janissaries broke into the church-become-mosque, Father Bellari was gone, his limp bodied carried hence by the Persian ambassador and his porter.

They slipped through the streets unobserved, and gained the ambassador’s rented house within a few minutes. There, they laid the body of the Christian priest on a couch, and another of their party, a veiled woman, set to work with trained medical competence.

“Will he live?” The ambassador enquired evenly.

“He lives and breaths, and there is no reason why that should cease” the woman answered. “But as to how he shall live, and the state of his soul – that, I do not know. He seems to me like one who is struck blind and dumb by some greater power.”

“Prophets thus afflicted regain their sight and speech in time” the ambassador said.

“They do – God is the Compassionate, the Merciful. He does not test men beyond their capacity to withstand. But I fear that this one has tested himself.” She paused. “Or perhaps we cannot understand all the tests which God may make of men.” She shrugged uneasily; these thoughts were hardly conventional theology.

“We will do what we can for this one, whatever is required, however long.” The ambassador became businesslike, seeking to deal with matters within his comprehension. “But what of the building? What should we do now?”

“That matter is ended,” the woman stated flatly. “You must have seen and sensed the fact yourself, I am sure. I do not know if this Christian drove the problem out, or purified it by his prayers, or took it upon himself, but even at this distance, it is clear. Let the Ottomans finish their works; it will make a fine mosque.”

“Praise be to God” the ambassador said.

“Praise be to God” the woman echoed, as she mopped the brow of the Christian priest, and gazed upon his unblinking eyes.


Copyright (c) Phil Masters, 2002. All rights reserved.

I put this story online purely for the amusement and curiosity value; I'm not at all sure it has much other. However, if you're utterly overwhelmed by it, please feel free to use the tip jar: