The History of the Heritage
Constructed by Justinian I, the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, in 532 AD when Istanbul was still Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) was a 65,000 square feet stone-structured church-cathedral. Throughout the course of its ruling history, the church was turned into a mosque which was then converted to a museum. Its original construction was meant to seat the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and it remained the same for approximately 900 years! In 1453, when the Ottoman forces of the Turk ruler Sultan Mehmet II claimed Constantinople as their land, they ransacked the cathedral that was Hagia Sophia and turned it into a mosque in no time. The monument was changed heavily, as key Orthodox features were re-interiorised, removed, even plastered upon, minarets were added to the exterior of the structure, and ornate Christian mosaics were covered with panels of religious Arabic calligraphy, giving it an essence of architectural, cultural, and of course, religious rebirth. For the longest time, it was Istanbul’s most important mosque until the Atatürk revolution.
Listed as a UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) World Heritage site, a 1500-year-old structure, on the backdrop of a religiously unprecedented heritage, and a history panning not just the entirety of the Ottoman Empire but the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia has a rich story not only in its cultural sense but in a historically and religiously profound way, one that only former Turkish President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was wise enough to have appreciated in the course of his modernisation of the nation. After the First World War, the Ottoman Sultans fell apart and Turkey was made into a secular nation by Atatürk. In the 1930’s, Atatürk shut down the mosque and created a museum out of it to preserve its culturally rich heritage, and highlight its historic significance. Interestingly, this shifted the honour of the greatest mosque in the Ummah (the Muslim community) to Masjid-al-Haram, the one in Mecca. It was now when Arab and Turkish tensions rose and gave birth to the debate relating to the state of the Hagia Sophia.
Erdogan’s Political Intent and Long-Term Desire for the Islamic Centralisation of Turkey
It was last year when the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that turning the Hagia Sophia into a museum was a “very big mistake” and considered reverting it back to a mosque just days before the local elections were supposed to be held. Initially, when Erdogan entered politics three decades ago in Turkey, anything even remotely related to Hagia Sophia was never on his agenda. In fact, he was even reported to have opposed the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque maybe in an attempt to seem politically correct, still an objection nonetheless. His rhetoric on the same grew the other way in 2019 when he ended up losing the municipal elections in Istanbul. It was later when the US President Donald Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, that Erdogan brought the same agenda up, attempting to maybe score political recognition that he had been losing since last year by supporting such a big decision, hoping to gain radical followership. And it seemed to have worked as he is currently the Turkish President, and is defending his final decision to exercise the country’s sovereign right in converting the museum back to a mosque, as the highest court annulled the site’s status as a museum. Official reports state that some Christian emblems, including mosaics of the Virgin Mary adorning its soaring golden dome, are still intact.
Erdogan’s changes to the Hagia Sophia are majorly to gain political publicity, but this indicates his desires for the nation from a larger standpoint. This agenda is a disguised symbolic ruse to dismantle Ataturk’s secular legacy by remoulding Turkey according to his own vision. He mounds himself as a modern-day Turkish conqueror who will “save” the nation’s sovereignty, and that any outsider that condemns the same is attacking Turkey directly. This decision is also reflective of his intention to shift the Islamic centre of gravity away from Mecca to Turkey. It is a pronounced declaration to the entirety of the Ummah across nations by reclaiming the honour of reinstating what was once the greatest mosque in hopes of going back to its history. The problem with which is that its legacy has proved why the decision is not only disrespectful to the monument’s history but demeans a great leader that democratised Turkey into what it is today (or was before Erdogan). Although, this reclamation sits well with his bases, such as religious conservatives and Turkish nationalists, incentivising further radical support. Imposing ultranationalism and non-democratic sentiments, he is becoming an era-defining strongman and threat of caution to democratised ideals.
Critics have argued that Erdogan is using this as a distraction from the economic damage caused in Turkey due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is highly plausible. Unfortunately, none of the backlashes affected Erdogan’s decision and shortly after the court’s announcement, the first call to prayer at Hagia Sophia was broadcasted on all of Turkey’s main news channels, subsequently after which the cultural site’s social media handles were taken down. The first Muslim prayers were held after 86 years inside the converted building on July 24 (also the anniversary of Turkey’s established borders due to the 1923 treaty), attended by around a thousand people in the mosque and a lot more others outside with their mats. Four muezzins recited the call to prayer from each of the four minarets.
International Reactions to the Reconversion
UNESCO stated that it deeply regretted the decision and appealed to the Turkish authorities to “open a dialogue without delay”. It urged Turkey not to finalise anything without discussion, yet was cold-shouldered. Greece has condemned the move gravely, being home to many Eastern Orthodox Church followers. Greek archaeologist and Cultural Minister Lina Mendoni stated that the entire tactic was an “open provocation to the civilised world” and was only raising religious tensions in the region. She claimed the court ruling confirmed the absence of an independent justice system in Turkey. Turkey’s Council of State, its top administrative court, ruled on July 10 stating, “It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally. The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws”. The Russian Church, home to the world’s largest Orthodox Christian community, immediately voiced apprehensions that the Turkish court would not take its community’s concerns into account while ruling on the status of Hagia Sophia. This has led to greater divisions between the communities, as the Pope has expressed “profound sadness”. Popular Turkish author Orhan Pamuk voiced the folly of the move while describing its backward motives of assigning an asterisk on its secular identity as a state which Kemal Ataturk helped restore. “There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard”, he stated in an interview with BBC.
This is an adamant historical change, despite severe criticism from the international community, to a monument that must belong to humanity at large and not to Turkey exclusively considering its history. It should remain a museum for bearing the brunt of being a bridge between the two faiths, and a worldwide symbol of coexistence with pride instead of battling a long drawn religious wrath that this decision imbibes. How long will regimens such as Erdogan’s allow for secularly-grey decisions to hold pedestals, being ignorant of histories and heritages, furthering matters of religious intolerance, and torturing secular fabrics?
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