by Chandler Groover
This miscellaneous legend was extracted from a kernel of forgotten lore, discovered by the author in a footnote in an outdated Russian architectural volume, printed over one century ago, which had itself been forgotten on a dusty library bookshelf. Whether the legend exists in any other source outside that single footnote remains to be determined.
If you have never seen Hagia Sophia, you should find a picture of it, or else visit it in person if you ever have the chance to. It is (or was) a church turned into a mosque turned into a museum, and it is (indeed, it is) one of this world’s greatest architectural marvels. It is expansive – it is beyond expansive – in the interior. On the exterior, it is not so much expansive as gigantic, or enormous. A spectacular dome sits atop it, like the rising circle of the sun half-risen on the line of the horizon, and four minarets tower spindling into the sky at each of the building’s four corners. The whole edifice suggests, somehow, greenness: it is filled with green speckles and gold light, and countless shards of mosaic tile decorate great portions of its wall-space. It is currently located in Istanbul, but it was originally built in Constantinople, the seat of the Byzantine Empire.
A peculiar tale is connected with the events of its erection.
When the dust of construction was still in the air, and the scaffolding still standing, and parts of the ceiling still open to the sky, and long before the minarets had even been conceived of (they were added to the building much later), Hagia Sophia did not, it is said, have a proper name. The structure, as it now stands, is actually the third of its kind to be built upon the spot it occupies, but all of those other religious edifices were simply called the Great Church, each in their turn. How, then, did the name “Hagia Sophia” come about? In this way:
One late afternoon, a youth named Michael, not twelve years old, was charged with standing guard at the half-finished narthex of the church while the builders went off for their dinners. You might imagine how the dusk must have been settling over the landscape, and how the clouds might have been turning purple, when a stranger began to approach the church from some way down the road. A more lackadaisical or irresponsible child might have let this person through, into the construction site, without a thought about it, but Michael stopped the oncoming stranger – politely enough – to ask him what his business was.
“My business,” said the stranger, “is with you.”
This, you might also imagine, might have been unnerving in its own way. The stranger, however, was kindly. He appeared to be a young man, no older than twenty, although he did not have a beard – which is not to say that he had trimmed, clipped, or otherwise shaved it, but that he did not have the slightest hint of facial hair: his complexion absolutely beamed. He did, however, have a head of hair, which was golden and fell to his shoulders, and he was dressed entirely in white, a simple white, such as peasants without dye would wear. All of this – the stranger’s appearance, as well as his attitude – when combined, served to produce a single effect upon Michael, whose next question followed the line his thoughts had taken.
“Are you, my lord,” he asked (always polite), “a eunuch?”
At this the stranger smiled.
“Not at all,” he said.
“Then, my lord, you are a man?”
“I cannot claim that distinction, either.”
By this point, Michael had become very confused.
“Then may I, at least, ask for your name, my lord?”
“It is your own name,” said the stranger. “I am Michael. I think you have heard of me by that appellation before.”
“Michael?” asked the youth. “I only know one other by that name, and he is an archangel.”
“Then,” replied the stranger, “you do know me.”
Here, you may not be surprised to learn that Michael – the youth, not the stranger – fell not only into doubt, but also into something like a mood of jocularity. He could not bring himself to believe that this man, so seemingly ordinary, could possibly be one of those heavenly creatures whose days are spent lounging on clouds, and bathing in sunbeams, in the service of God Almighty. It seemed, furthermore, ridiculous to imagine that the man – if, in fact, he was an angel – was that angel, charged with commanding the ranks of the divine army, the archangel Michael, whose sword had clashed with, and triumphed over, Satan himself.
“My lord,” said the youth, after a little, silent laugh, “it cannot be!”
“Oh, no?” the stranger asked.
And then, as the sun at last dipped to its lowest point on the horizon, it cast a blinding light across the countryside – the death-glow of the day – and blazed at the back of the stranger’s uplifted head like the form of a phosphorescent halo. All at once, the youth knew the magnitude of his folly: before him was no mortal man, but really and truly an agent of the Lord. The stranger’s white dress was transmogrified, its fabric folding as if it were alive, as if it were electrified, and two great glowing wings, with spans to shame all birds, expanded in a canopy of feathers from behind the archangel’s shoulders. Now, his skin not only beamed, but radiated light, and lifting his hand he unsheathed from thin air a blade of living fire, the hilt of which was gold, as if in demonstration of the power that he wielded.
“My lord!” exclaimed the youth, deflating to one knee; but even as he did so, the sun at last set, and the light of the day was gone, and so, too, was the physical majesty of the angel. He looked like a mortal man again.
“Rise up, Michael,” he said. “You have no need to kneel before me.”
The youth obeyed, unquestioning.
“I have come here for one simple reason.”
“What would that be, my lord?” the boy asked.
“To name your church,” replied the archangel. “It should be named Sophia, to commemorate our Savior’s holy wisdom. Go, now, and tell the master builders of my visitation, and propose this name for them to call their building by.”
“Of course, my lord,” the youth replied.
He was not, now, in any way willing to doubt, or ignore, what the archangel said.
But then, he had also been charged with guarding the church. He could not, he reasoned, even on divine business, simply abandon his post and leave the half-constructed edifice unprotected. He told the archangel that he would speak to the master builders as soon as they returned from their dinner, but that he could not, just like that, walk away from his duty as watchman.
“A fine consideration,” said the archangel, “and one with which I sympathize. Therefore, let me act in your stead, and guard this holy structure until you can return. Now, however, you must run – run straightaway to those master builders, and tell them straightaway what you have seen, and what I have said. I will station myself here as protector until you might reclaim your post, and promise that no harm will come to the church in your absence.”
The youth had no power to oppose this suggestion, and so, at the archangel’s bidding, he ran off through the city to the palace of the Emperor Justinian, where the master builders always had their meals in the company of that royal head of state.
On any other day, the Emperor might not have bothered with receiving this youth: his imperial obligations typically restricted him, and consumed all of his spare time, leaving him with little willpower or want to deal with the petty trifles of the common men under his rule after a taxing daily schedule had already drained him. But it so happened that, on this particular evening, the dinner served had been more than pleasant, the company and conversation of his retinue more than diverting, and his sensibilities stimulated enough for him to welcome Michael’s arrival as just one of the many entertainments of that night. The boy was taken in, therefore, to the imperial dining room, where the Emperor sat, along with his court, and the master builders of the church beside him, at a high table, with plenty of delicacies spread out before them on a variety of fancy plates.
“Speak!” said Justinian. “And let your business here be known.”
Whereupon the youth informed them of the archangel’s appearance, and of his divine suggestion for the church to be titled Sophia.
“And where is this archangel now?” asked one of the court.
“At my post,” said the youth. “He has offered to guard the building in my stead until I should return there.”
The diners murmured at their table, and a great many shaggy heads were put together over the point (shaggy, because many of Justinian’s advisors were of an elderly constitution). At length, some agreement appeared to have been reached amongst them, and whispers were sent from man to man down the table until they had traveled into Justinian’s waiting ear. But before he had a chance to digest his advisors’ opinions and afterwards speak, his royal consort, the Empress Theodora, interjected with her own interpretation of the matter.
“My lord,” she said, touching Justinian’s arm, “I have a proposal.”
Theodora, having been raised amidst the splendors and vices of the hippodrome, was certain to have a viewpoint distinctive from any other person in the court, many of whom had distilled their wisdom from tomes and focused it only through means of hypothetical application. She, on the other hand, had grown up in the squalor of actual poverty, and watched her father train bears as a young girl, and employed herself, at times, rather lowly in order to survive, before ensnaring the heart of the emperor who would eventually become her husband. Now, she was weighed down with countless pearls, diamonds, amethysts and ambers, so that the glitter of her wardrobe might have been perceived as mirroring the glitter of her wit; for she was witty, her intelligence keen, and her powers of observation sharp.
“It seems to me,” she said, “that we must name the church Sophia. To do anything else might be a sacrilege.”
Justinian consented to this with a nod of his crown.
“And it also seems to me,” the Empress went on, “that we must never send this child back to guard the church again.”
At this, there was a tussle at the table, but the Empress went on nevertheless:
“For, you see, it seems to me,” she said, “that as long as the boy remains absent, the angel is compelled to remain present. He has promised to protect the church until this youth, here, should return. Let him, then, never return, and Constantinople will have a guardian archangel until the commencement of the apocalypse.”
This logic was irrefutable, and young Michael was subsequently sent to Rome, never again to set foot on the grounds of what came to be known as Hagia Sophia, or the Church of Holy Wisdom.
Afterwards, you might imagine how young Michael – as an adolescent, and then as an adult, and finally as an old man – must have thought back on that late afternoon, when the sun was setting, and when the angel appeared before him. He must have thought back on it frequently, perhaps even longingly, perhaps wondrously, but the legend, you must understand, does not record with what eyes the youth came to look back on his life. Neither, for that matter, does it record what became of the archangel. And how could it? – unless someone else witnessed that supernatural presence at the church, which no one ever did. Perhaps the divine figure still lingers around the narthex, passing in and out of the light, and so in and out of reality. Or perhaps he has been called away to another place, in another time, by another promise, and forced to serve under the cunning machinations of another queen.
Whichever, or whatever, the case may be, Hagia Sophia is beautiful: about that there is no doubt.
* * *
Chandler Groover was born in Atlanta, received a BA in English from the University of Georgia, and now lives in NYC. He works as a freelance copyeditor. His first novel, What Happened at Heath-Cliff Hall, was published in 2011.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Ideas can come from anywhere. What makes an idea worth converting into a story for me, though, is how much potential that idea has to be stretched and reformed through a fictional treatment. Some subjects are more malleable than others. When you find one that can really withstand a lot of twisting, that's when you've got a story. You've imagined it re-twisted into something else, and you have to write it down.