The contested status of Hagia Sophia

July 26, 2020

It may be argued that if Mustapha Kamal committed a mistake in turning a mosque into a museum, Erdogan will be committing yet another mistake by converting a museum into a mosque

Hagia Sophia’s changed status from a museum to a mosque has stirred up quite an acrimonious debate all around the globe. Before going into detail about the criticisms and condemnation that President Erdogan has been subjected to, the signification of that conversion with respect to Turkey and its wider ramifications ought to be spelt out. It would seem rather simplistic to say that Turkey is undergoing a transition from a secular nation state to a Muslim polity. Mustapha Kamal, the founder of modern Turkey envisaged Turkey as a secular and Westernised state but while casting it in that mould, he tried to affect a break from the past. Therefore, strangely enough, the nationalism of modern Turkey does not predicate on its historical past. Turkish nationalism is based entirely on western modernism, in which religious tradition is usually cast out as red herring. It was in this context, that Kamal changed the character of Hagia Sophia and made it a museum. With Tayyip Recep Erdoğan coming into power and having concentrated all power in his person, and Europe constantly dragging its feet on including Turkey in European Union despite Turkey’s secular pretentions, Turkey seems set to hark back to its past. The move of converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a step in that direction, connecting Turkey with its past.

Obviously this invited trenchant criticism from various organisations and some states too. UNESCO announced that it “deeply regrets” the conversion, “made without prior discussion”, and asked Turkey to “open a dialogue without delay”, stating that the lack of negotiation was “regrettable”. The World Council of Churches, which claims to represent 500 million Christians of 350 denominations, condemned the decision to convert the building into a mosque, saying that would “inevitably create uncertainties, suspicions and mistrust”; it urged Erdoğan to reverse the decision “in the interests of promoting mutual understanding, respect, dialogue and cooperation, and avoiding cultivating old animosities and divisions”. Pope Francis said that “I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained”, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople warned that converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque would “fracture” East and West. It is interesting to note how significant a symbol of the medieval world becomes for the people of 21st century. That is a rare connection between the two epochs. Before proceeding any further, giving a brief introduction of Hagia Sophia will help put things in perspective.

Hagia Sophia is a Late Antique place of worship in Istanbul, which was built in 537 AD as the patriarchal cathedral of Constantinople. Completed during the reign of the eastern Roman emperor Justinian I, it was then the world’s largest interior space and among the first to employ a fully pendentive dome. It is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have “changed the history of architecture”. It remained the largest church of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire until 1453, when it was converted into an Ottoman mosque upon the fall of the city. Some random source disclosed while making a presentation on the television that Sultan Mehmet II purchased the premises of the cathedral, but that assertion could not be corroborated from any other source. In 1935, it became a secular museum, and in 2020 will re-open as a mosque.

Quite impervious to global criticism, President Erdoğan went on to sign a decree annulling the Hagia Sophia’s museum status, reverting it to a mosque. The call to prayer was broadcast from the minarets shortly after the announcement of the change. The Hagia Sophia Museum’s social media channels were taken down the same day, with Erdoğan announcing at a press conference that prayers would be held there from July24. In 2020, Turkey’s government is set to celebrate the 567th anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople with an Islamic prayer in Hagia Sophia. “Surah Al-Fatah will be recited and prayers will be said at Hagia Sophia as part of conquest festival”, President Erdoğan said during a televised broadcast. In May, during the anniversary events, passages from the Quran were read in the Hagia Sophia. That, too, is a departure from past practice. Secular Turkey had never celebrated the fall of Constantinople. Since 2018, Erdogan has been indicating the possibility of reverting the status of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque, a move seen to be very popularly accepted by the religious populace whom Erdoğan is attempting to persuade. On March 31, 2018, Erdoğan recited the first verse of the Holy Quran in the Hagia Sophia, dedicating the prayer to the “souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul’s conqueror”, strengthening the political movement to make the Hagia Sophia a mosque once again, which would reverse Atatürk’s measure of turning the Hagia Sophia into a secular museum.

In March 2019, Erdoğan reiterated his intention of changing the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, incriminating Kamal Ataturk’s move of turning it into a museum as a “very big mistake”. Thus, by converting it into mosque, Erdogan ostensibly will rectify that mistake. But one may assert that if Kamal committed a mistake by turning it into a museum, Erdogan will be committing yet another mistake by converting a museum into a mosque. A space devoted for the people of all faiths will be meant only for Muslims which is an act of self-exclusion. Self-exclusion is the biggest mistake that Muslims make and they make it quite consistently. That is what why they are seen as decadent and retrogressive people.

The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

The contested status of Hagia Sophia