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July 26, 2020

Of churches and mosques

Opinion

July 26, 2020

As Pakistan hands over a 200-year-old gurdwara to the Sikh community, a monument of religious importance in Turkey is embroiled in an issue dividing the globe. One thing is for sure: Turkey’s recent decision to convert Hagia Sophia back to a mosque shreds the secular cloak it has worn for so long, and that too, successfully.

Muslims, in Turkey and Pakistan, overwhelmingly hail the decision. But until now, the monument has remained a museum after Turkey became a state in 1923. Court proceedings have questioned the decision of Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a museum – after it lived the chosen life close to a century, attracting almost 3.3 million visitors annually.

To the world, and then also to its country, it remained a perfect blend of two distinct cultures, two diverse faiths, with their iconography surviving in co-existence. However, it seems that Hagia Sophia is now ready to join the surrounding monuments which the Sultanate had bestowed. In fact, the history of Hagia Sophia as a mosque remains linked with the Ottoman history itself; earlier with the conquest of Constantinople and today, with the memorial resurrection of Ottoman Empire, it converts back into a mosque.

Hagia Sophia is not originally Ottoman, nor it was a Muslim place of worship. Built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, it remained the world's largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years, until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520. It was first converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453. As history would record, “the bells, altar, iconostasis were removed and relics destroyed. The mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary, Christian saints, and angels were eventually destroyed or plastered over. Islamic architectural features were added, such as a minbar (pulpit), four minarets (towers) and a mihrab (niche in wall)“. It thus became the principal mosque of Istanbul (as Constantinople was renamed) until the construction of the nearby Sultan Ahmed Mosque or the Blue Mosque.

In 1935, the newly founded secular Republic of Turkey changed Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum. The whitewash and plaster was removed. Thus, muezzins’ calls for prayers echoed on the walls laden with calligraphies bearing the names of the rightly guided caliphs, as frescoes of Virgin Mary and Jesus gazed upon the righteous Muslims bowing their heads to their Creator in the nearby mosques.

But for the past decade, debates have emerged in Turkey over the re-conversion of the structure to a mosque, eventually deciding in its favour. Turkey's highest administrative legal ruling body ruled that the 1934 conversion of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia into a museum was unlawful. Lawyers argued that the structure was the private property of Sultan Mehmed II who converted and bequeathed the structure as a mosque in perpetuity, and could not be used against his will. The Sultan died in 1481, his empire was abolished in 1923, and his last surviving descendent, Prince Ertugrul Osman died in 2009.

The decision is a ‘blow to Turkey’s secular pride’, says the country’s well-known novelist, Orhan Pamuk. Understandably, church leaders from around the world, and the UN denounce the decision.

It is not the first time a place of worship has exchanged religions. Medieval history is replete with such examples. The occupying “powers used sacred spaces, public spaces, and policy to demonstrate that their singular ideologies were dominant over those of the previous rulers they conquered.” Thus, the Christian reconquest of Moorish Spain saw the building of many churches and monasteries over mosques like the Mezquita in Cordoba.

But times changed. There are no more kingdoms and monarchies in this world – apart from a few symbolic ones. The age of democracy, political ties and diplomacy took over. Tolerance was the new policy, although what we see today is the very opposite. Be it Narendra Modi in India or Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, their desire to revert back to what their religious forefathers preached and practised, is imminent. But whether this desire has more to do with faith is yet to be determined.

Take Modi. From revoking an important Article from the Indian constitution to the controversial Indian Citizenship Law, his one-sided, Hindu-centric decisions are much known. During his tenure as chief minister in Gujarat to now being the prime minister of India, he has been criticised and blamed for the spike in anti-Muslim riots. But he is also alleged to thrive on his nationalistic agenda for a higher purpose: to secure his vote bank. Modi’s tenure has seen the worst of relations with his neighbouring Pakistan. However, despite dents in the economy, his hold of the majority in parliament has either increased or at least remained safe, thanks to his aggressive anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan rhetoric.

With Erdogan, reclaiming Hagia Sophia plays well with his supporters. The decision also deflects attention from the economy, now bracing for a second recession. But Turkey and one of its most visited cities, Istanbul, has remained, since the times of the Ottomans, a crossroads for the world. Since Turkey’s independence as a republic, it has basked in the glory of cosmopolitan cultures. For centuries, it has enveloped Muslims, Jews, Christians in its manifolds. Will it continue the tradition?

While this remains to be answered only in the future, one can question the sentimental outrage of the world over Hagia Sophia, when Babri Mosque succumbed to ruins with no major outcry to reverse the decision. One could also weep at the Mezquita. Why only Hagia Sophia? Why not ask for all such spaces to be given the title of museums and allow the world to marvel at ancient architectural feats without tags of caste, creed and religion.

Well, this may be too much to ask for: a unanimous, global understanding. For now, time has taken another turn, and Hagia Sophia’s origins of the lost Byzantine Empire continue to play hide and seek from the world. As Turkey races towards fundamentalism, it’s most iconic monument, Hagia Sophia prepares for yet another makeover.

The writer is a freelance journalist. She has a keen interest in issues regarding women, religion and foreign affairs. Email: [email protected]