The trip started in Istanbul (I write from Izmir fka Smyrna). We saw the spectacular Aya Sophia, the former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, and now a museum. The patron of the current building was Justinian I, the last emperor to speak Latin. Though churches were on the site from the late fourth century, the current Byzantine design was a product of builders’ efforts between 532 and 537.
One feature that stood out in the tour guide’s comments, reinforced by the architecture, was that this was a church for the emperor. He had a grand door to enter the sanctuary and he alone of the laity went into the sacred space. The empress had a view of the proceedings from the balcony. And the rest of the city’s Christians had to stand outside in the narthex.
To a citizen of the United States and a Reformed Protestant to boot, the idea of a facility like this being reserved for the worship needs of one man seems a tad excessive. I understand emperors were big kahunas and needed special care and feeding. But this?
And then I remembered a comparable dome in the United States where the father of a certain country is deified. That got me to thinking that we moderns are not that more skeptical about rank and privilege that the ancients were. And when you remember that Justinian was not depicted as a god the way that George Washington is, you wonder just how much the modern nation-state has abandoned the pieties of ancient kingdoms.