2010 Reflections Lillian

Interdisciplinary Center for Hellenic Studies

Lillian Hussong

Lillian Hussong is a Stockton student and was one of two student presenters at the symposium. 


When I was a junior in high school, I had the opportunity to take a class called AP World Art History. I was hesitant at first—subjecting myself to forty minutes worth of agonizing slide transition clicks was not how I wanted to spend a whole year.


I was lucky to have a knowledgeable teacher who wanted everyone to take away something from the class—one painting, a sculpture, or an architectural masterpiece that that amazed us, and brought a deeper appreciation to art and history. As he worked his way through the time periods, I gradually became amazed by the works of geniuses so many centuries before me.  My teacher brought to life pictures of churches and sculptures of gods and goddesses. He opened a door that I walked through eagerly to learn more.


For me, that one special slide in the class was of the Hagia Sophia. My teacher showed us how the light shone through the building and illuminated the place in such a way that could make a person fall to their knees in awe. He pointed out the roundels, larger than life calligraphic depictions of Allah, and the Caliphate, as it was when the Hagia Sophia had been a mosque. What a connection between two faiths to have shared the most beautiful building on the planet! I vowed from the day I saw that slide that if there was one place I had to see before I passed away, it would be the Hagia Sophia. I wanted to see the building that Justinian had so famously proclaimed to have built better than Solomon.

In April of 2010 I had received an eMail from a professor of whom I had heard, but never met. The message said that Professor Papademetriou wanted to meet with me, and if possible, I should come as quickly as I can. My mother called and practically shouted at me to meet with him that very instant (professors have a weird connection where they know things before I do), so I did. I walked in the door a little apprehensive, introduced myself, and sat down. Professor Papademetriou explained to me that he was attending a conference and was interested in having someone assist him. How many languages did I know? How much research work had I done? I was definitely a little frazzled because he sounded like he was looking for a world class worker, and I wasn’t too confident in my capabilities. He then indicated that there was a chance I could travel with him to this conference—in Istanbul. It was not one lightbulb that flashed in my head, but maybe ten thousand. Istanbul? The city of the Hagia Sophia? Located at the crossroads of European and the Middle East? There was no way I was going to be able to feel remiss about my academic capabilities—I knew that to get to Istanbul I would have to do a lot of hard work, which I was more than eager to do.


Fast forward to my arrival in Istanbul. As we walked around Sultanahmet Square to get to our hotel, I was in complete shock. There I was, in between the Sultanahmet Mosque and the Hagia Sophia! I felt very small next to these colossal buildings. But as small as I felt, my excitement was larger than those two mosques combined. It was almost as if what I saw wasn’t real. I am used to living in a dull town staring at no architectural marvels, and here I am in Istanbul and I feel like I need to rub my eyes so I can the street I live on, not the “eighth wonder of the world”.


The afternoon I went to the Hagia Sophia was truly life-changing. I was so nervous, as if the building could be judging me instead of me judging it. I walked inside with two friends, and we looked at some mosaics and informational posters for a few minutes (much to my hopefully concealed impatience). When we walked into the center of the church-mosque, I think all sound escaped from the place. It was me, and this church, and no one else around. I looked up at the dome, completely entrenched with light and calligraphy, and I began to tear up. In a strange way I cannot explain, I felt home. It was as if everything I had been studying in high school, at Stockton, and in my leisure, was right here. I stood there for several minutes, my eyes tracing a circle around the beautiful light that illuminated the calligraphy which was so beautifully adorned. I tilted my head to one corner, and there it was—that familiar ray of sunshine beaming into the place, casting a radiating energy which everyone soaked up. I really couldn’t believe it. And on the walls were those roundels, truly larger than any writing I’d seen before, in magnificent shades of gold and blue, challenging you to find anyone who could be as more loyal to a faith than anywhere else.

Having to walk away from the Hagia Sophia was hard, but I walked away thinking that I had seen the pinnacle of civilization. I still believe there is no finer structure on this planet than that church-mosque, and I do not think one will ever be built. I walked away with feelings of gratitude to two entities—first, those who built the Hagia Sophia and for having created it so that it will remain forever, and second—to Professor Papademetriou and all of Stockton College who made this trip possible. Like standing in the center of that place and not having true words to describe the experience, I have not enough words to describe my deepest thanks and appreciation to the people who believed in my capabilities to do research, and for all of Stockton having put together so marvelous a trip. The Istanbul Symposium has done for me more than I believe to know at this point in time. However it has instilled in me the confidence to keep doing scholarly research, and the wanderlust to go back to Turkey one day and once again agree with Justinian that he has stepped into a building more beautiful than one can fathom.