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“We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.” — Russian Ambassadors upon visiting Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia in 987
A millennium ago, Prince Vladimir was the leader of the Kievan Rus’, the predecessors of the current Russian state. He was a rather nasty fellow, even among pagan autocrats, but he knew the times were changing. If he wanted to keep his newly conquered country unified, he needed to establish some level of civilized culture.
The first step was to decide on a single faith — not the current fractured collection of gods and the occasional monotheist deity. Time for some comparative religion!
He sent ambassadors to research Islam, the newest religion, which seemed on the rise. The Prince was horrified that Muslims couldn’t consume pork or, even worse, alcohol. What’s life without bacon and a stiff drink? No dice, said the prince.
What about Judaism? Again, the pork ban was a sticking point, but the Prince was more troubled that the Jews had lost their home city, Jerusalem. The warlike leader didn’t want to serve that kind of God.
German Catholics were next on the list, but his ambassadors described it as plain, austere, and dour. (Maybe if they had visited Rome, they would have had a different perspective.) Sounds like a drag, the Prince thought, and he scratched option number three off the list. Only one faith remained, so he sent an embassy to Constantinople.
Byzantine Emperor Basil II rolled out the proverbial red carpet for the ambassadors, inviting them to the Hagia Sophia; in English, “Holy Wisdom.”
The massive church was the most impressive edifice on earth, inspiring awe the world over. Emperor Justinian I commissioned the architectural marvel 450 years earlier, charging the architects with creating a structure unlike anything that had ever existed. Upon completion, the emperor exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The Hagia Sophia remained the largest cathedral for the next 1,000 years.
The central dome measures more than 100 feet across and stands nearly 200 feet above the floor. Massive chandeliers are suspended above the ground and huge windows draw in sunlight to reflect on the golden walls. Nearly every surface was covered in elaborate icons representing Christ and the saints.
In case the Russian ambassadors weren’t already impressed, the emperor brought them to witness the elaborate Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church. Between the angelic choirs, heady incense, and reverent worship, the Prince’s embassy was astonished:
And we went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.
Upon hearing from his ambassadors, Vladimir sent away his pagan wives, asked to be baptized, and requested that the Emperor’s sister Anna be his bride. She arrived with several priests to further instruct him in his newfound faith.
Vladimir baptized his 12 sons and many among the aristocracy. He destroyed the pagan idols and tossed the statue of the Kievan’s supreme god into a river. Vladimir then told all the residents of Kiev to come to the Dnieper River to be baptized en masse. To this day, the Russian Church remains the largest Orthodox communion on earth.
Now, that is good architecture.