In Historic Step, Turkey Restores Hagia Sophia to Mosque, Sparking Mixed Reactions At Home and Abroad
Soon after the young Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II led his triumphant army to newly conquered Constantinople, the capital of the defeated Byzantium Empire, he set out an ambitious project to rebuild the city from its ruins after a two-month siege in 1453. Hagia Sophia, the greatest church of Eastern Christendom, stood as the crown jewel of all prizes and the young Sultan simply invoked the law of the conqueror when he converted the church into a mosque. In an indication of the dawn of a new epoch, Constantinople became Istanbul as the new imperial capital of the Muslim Ottomans. Correspondingly, Hagia Sophia began to serve as the religious site of the new masters of, to borrow the phrase of Philip Mansel, the city of the world’s desire.
It remained so until 1934 when the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic designated Hagia Sophia as a museum with a cabinet decision that generated controversy even decades after. The move has become an enduring source of friction between secular elites and pious masses to this day. It served as a rallying cry for adherents of center-right conservative politics. Esref Ziya’s Ayasofya song epitomized the feelings of a generation in the early 1990s when Erdogan first ran to become Istanbul’s mayor. The song represented a yearning for the loss of Hagia Sophia’s mosque identity and served as a glue to assemble a strong coalition of disgruntled pious Turks.
After weeks of wrangling and squabbling, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration took a historical step in a snub to the international community when a government-pliant court ruled in favor of the proposal to declare Hagia Sophia a mosque again on Friday. A century-old longing for restoring its status finally materialized, to a mixed sense of joy and despair on opposing sides of the story.
Hagia Sophia as a Mirror Image of Its Age
From the very first moment of the Ottoman conquest down to this day, any change in Hagia Sophia’s venerable status has served as a mirror of its age; it unwittingly functioned as a barometer of larger changes in underlying socio-political and religious currents beneath the surface. When it became a mosque, it marked the end of Eastern Christendom as the dominant religion of Constantinople after more than 1,000 years. Its conversion to a museum in 1934 signified the close of another chapter in the city: the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the end of Islam as the official religion of the new nation-state, and a farewell to city’s role as the imperial capital for more than 1,500 years. Reading the story of Hagia Sophia’s metamorphosis each time has become synonymous with reading each successive era in the city’s rich imperial history. Every change about the status of Hagia Sophia says something about the era, the socio-political context, the religious situation, and many more. Friday’s historic decision was certainly no exception.
There is a large body of scholarly works that demarcate the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum as a defining point that separates secular Turkey from the past in the early Republican era. Secularism became the ethos of republican state and Hagia Sophia’s fate has unwittingly become entangled in a larger narrative about where Turkey belongs and where it navigates to. Amid this clash of narratives, its status continued to serve as the marker of identity politics and its ever-shifting complexion in Turkey’s domestic realm. By redefinition of Hagia Sophia’s symbolic status, many observers and citizens contend, the Erdogan administration has taken a definitive step to define the character of the new Turkey, beyond a point of no return. It is like the last episode in a long showdown between conservative/nationalist people and the secular Kemalists over the fate of that iconic site (and Turkey in the larger context).
Consequently, Hagia Sophia, long an inadvertent symbol of the century-old conflict between politics and religion, came to represent the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. After decades of yearning, Turkey’s conservative and nationalist segments seem to have completed the Turkish version of Reconquista.
A Divided Turkey
For all the joy it sparked, Erdogan’s bold move was not without controversy. The government presented it as a belated historical correction of a wrong done by the early republican regime. Yet, in the eyes of many people, populism and political investment were the main drivers of the president’s historical step when he snubbed the international community for the execution of the long-anticipated plan.
Nothing could be more symbolic or telling than the official opening day: July 15. As the Erdogan administration prepares for another pompous celebration of the defeat of the July 15 coup attempt, the president personally seeks to lead the inauguration ceremony as a display of his gratitude to God for its blessed gift that day. “A gift from God,” Erdogan exclaimed when he described the premature putsch four years ago.
Only several years ago, Erdogan summoned caution against the Hagia Sophia calls. He said a Hagia Sophia move would never be cost-free and he broached the prospect of potential ramifications against mosques abroad. Yet, Friday’s move came as a dramatic turnaround only in the course of a couple of years.
While his supporters crowed in jubilation, his discontents were quick to remind Erdogan of his massive human rights abuses.
Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu, a lawmaker from pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), was blunt in his criticism of the latest move.
“In the country, there is no state left, never to speak of a state with rule of law. When we look at the world criteria, the world indexes; Turkey has relegated to Africa league in terms of the rule of law, judicial independence, democracy and media freedom. What does the government do? They turn Hagia Sophia to a mosque. What does it do? It seeks to deceive people by using the religion against (another religion)…” (Gergerlioglu, HDP)
He did not reserve his fire when he offered a scathing portrayal of the government: “You will not be able to cover up your evil, your genocidal practices by re-opening Hagia Sophia…”
London-based Turkish writer Elif Shafak also chimed in as the country has plunged into an all-consuming debate after the court verdict. She denounced the decision vehemently.
In remarks to BBC, Nobel Literature Prize winner Orhan Pamuk expressed his dismay. “There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard.”
Professor Hayri Kirbasoglu, a theology professor at Ankara University, described the move as a revanchist and populist decision that would create a lot of headaches for Turkey at home and abroad.
Noting that the decision has nothing to do with religion, he went on to elaborate: “Both [Sultan] Fatih’s decision to convert [Hagia Sophia] to a mosque, or 1934 decision or current one; [they are] all political moves. It has nothing to do with religion.”
In the weeks leading up to Friday’s final decision, tension piled up between Turkey and Greece, between Ankara and the Ecumenical Patriarch, between President Erdogan and the international community. The Turkish president previously dismissed any outside criticism as interference in Turkey’s national sovereignty.
“They are telling us not to transform Ayasofya into a mosque. Are you ruling Turkey, or are we?” the president asked dismissively last week.
After the announcement of the official decision, there was an outburst of international outcry.
UNESCO said it “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of #WorldHeritage to be preserved.”
Greek President described the latest act as a “profoundly provocative against the international community.”
Lina Mendoni, the Greek culture minister, portrayed the move as “an open challenge to the entire civilized world that recognizes the unique value and universality of the monument.”
“Hagia Sophia, located in Istanbul, is a monument to all mankind, regardless of religion,” the minister added, according to Politico.
A similar reaction displayed by the Patriarchate in Istanbul, which last month warned that such a move would antagonize and unite the Christian world against Turkey, and the Russian Orthodox Church among countless others.
But it was welcomed by many Muslims around the world. People from the Middle East, Pakistan and elsewhere shared their exuberant joy on social media.
In a comment on New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez’s condemning tweet on Twitter, a Catholic-turned-Muslim praised the Turkish decision to restore Hagia Sophia back to its original status.
Hagia Sophia, as it seems, was not the end of the whole story. It is just the beginning of a long-running debate about new Turkey.