Friday, May 29, 2015

The Last Divine Liturgy in St. Sophia, Constantinople

Many, even Orthodox, even Greeks, believe that the last Divine Liturgy in St. Sophia, in Constantinople, was celebrated on the 29 May 1453. However, the last Liturgy took place in 1919. The priest who celebrated the Divine Liturgy was Fr. Lefteris Noufarakis, who was from Alones Rethymnou, Crete. He was an army priest in the Second Greek Army Division, one of the two army divisions which was part of the allied expeditionary body in Ukraine. This Army Division went to Ukraine via Constantinople, which then was under ‘allied sovereignty’, after the end of WW I.

A group of Greek Officers, led by the priest, General Frantzis, Major Liaromati, Captain Stamatiou and Lieutenant Nikolaou were observing the City and Hagia Sophia, keeping to themselves their secret, i.e. to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in St. Sophia – a decision taken primarily by the priest. The difficulty of this endeavour was the fact that during that period St. Sophia was a mosque, creating therefore some major issues. This could have created a diplomatic incident between Greece and Turkey. However, Fr. Lefteris had decided that he was going to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in St. Sophia, whatever difficulty came his way. 
-          If you do not come, I will go alone! I just need a chanter. You, Konstantine (Liaromati), will you be my chanter?
-          Ok Father, he replied. He had agreed to go with him.
The other officers followed too. They all boarded a small boat, with a Greek rower from Constantinople. Kosmas, the local boater, took them through a shortcut to Hagia Sophia. The doors were open. The Turkish guard was about to stop them, but General Fratzis gave him an angry look, which left the guard speechless. They all entered the Holy Church with reverence, making the sign of the cross. Father Lefteris said, quietly, with great emotion: “I enter into your house; I worship towards your Holy Church in fear…”
He quickly moved towards the Holy Sanctuary, where the Holy Table would have been. He found a small table and placed it within the Sanctuary. He had everything in a small bag; he took everything out, he put on his vestments and began:
“Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages”.
“Amen”, replied the Major Liaromatis. The Divine Liturgy had begun in Hagia Sophia, for the first time since the 29 May 1453. All of them wished one thing that they could finish the Divine Liturgy, without being interrupted. Everything had happened so quickly, they could not believe what was happening.
In the meantime the church was filling up with Turks; however, they remained silent, probably not understanding or not being able to believe what was actually happening. It was, in many respects, an unimaginable reality. During this time more and more people. Among them were also Greeks who lived in Constantinople, who happened to come to Hagia Sophia by chance. They were surprised and extremely moved by what was happening. During the Anaphora, all the Greeks bowed, listening to the chanter chant: “We praise you, we bless you, we give thanks to you, O Lord, and we pray to you, our God”. The time then came, where all of the Greeks went and received Holy Communion, after 466 years. After the Holy Communion they quickly finished the Liturgy. Fr. Lefteris told Lieutenant Nikolaou “quickly gather everything and place them in the bag”.
The Divine Liturgy is finished. However, by the end of the Liturgy the church was packed with Turks, who began to get aggressive, understanding what just happened. Their lives were in danger. However, they do not hesitate. They joined together and walked out. The mob is ready to hit them. At that point a Turkish Officer told them to let them come through. He was also angry, but he understood that he had to let them go, for political reasons. It would have not looked good for Turkey to have killed five Greek officers in Hagia Sophia. Let us not forget that there were two Greek Divisions near the City, and Constantinople was under foreign occupation, under the winners of WWI. The Greek officers made it to the boat. However, a ‘giant’ Turk followed them, he grabbed a large wooden branch and tried to hit the priest, understanding that it was him who initiated this event.
The priest crouched down, but the wood hit his shoulder. Major Liaromatis and Captain Stamatiou achieved to take the wood from the Turk, who was ready to hit the priest again. They eventually achieved to reach the Greek War Ship. However, this event did create a diplomatic incident, with the allies complaining to the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who eventually had to reprimand Fr. Lefteri. Nevertheless, he contacted him privately and congratulated him, for realising in Hagia Sophia the dream all Greeks have.
The unfortunate fact about this real story is the fact that not many people know about it. Even in his home town they are ignorant about it. However, he is the only one, who after 1453, gave life to Hagia Sophia, reminded it of its past glory, and showed its true colours. We, now, can only hope that in the near future, the Turkish Government will see the significance this Church has for the Christian world, and might allow for it to become a Church again. Maybe this is an ideal thought and wish. However, it cannot and should not return to its previous status, i.e. to become a mosque, as many Turks now wish to see it[1].

[1] For a more elaborate version, in Greek, please look at: Σπουδάγματα, Τεύχος 11, Πάσχα 2004, pp. 58-62


  1. God willing, the liturgy will again be celebrated, and on a regular basis, inside the Church of the Holy Wisdom!