Waugh and Saint Sophia

A story by Dr Binoy Kampmark, Selwyn College, Cambridge, about the reconversion of the Saint Sophia cathedral in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque opens with this quote from Evelyn Waugh:

When the caustic Evelyn Waugh visited the majestic sixth century creation of Emperor Justinian, one subsequently enlarged, enriched and encrusted by various rulers, he felt underwhelmed. “‘Agia’ will always win the day for one,” he wrote of Istanbul’s holiest of holies, Hagia Sophia, in 1930. “A more recondite snobbism is to say ‘Aya Sofia’, but except in a very sophisticated circle, who will probably not need guidance in the matter at all, this is liable to suspicion as a mere mispronunciation.”

In a somewhat cool reaction, Waugh struggled to reconcile the pop mythology, at that point elevated by celebratory brochure and tourist packages, with the sight of it. “We saw Agia Sophia, a majestic shell full of vile Turkish fripperies, whose whole architectural rectitude has been fatally disturbed by the reorientation of the mihrab.”

The quotes are from Waugh’a 1930 travel book Labels (pp. 140-41). At the time Waugh visited in 1930, the structure was still being used as a mosque. The Ataturk regime made it into a museum four years later. Waugh continues in the same vein:

In Cairo I have noted the pride and superiority which a Western mind must feel when confronted with Arabic art; this feeling is intensified and broadened a hundred times in relation to everything Turkish. They seem to have been unable to touch any existing work or to imitate any existing movement without degrading it.

Dr Kampmark’s article has been picked up by several news websites and can be read in full at scoop.co.nz.

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