A MUSEUM, A CATHEDRAL AND NOW A MOSQUE, BUT WHERE DOES IT STAND?
By Harvey Dorset: culture Columnist
As the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, converts the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque after 86 years as a museum, the building’s role as a UNESCO world heritage site seems ever more fragile.
This fragility is amplified by the regional instability caused by the ongoing Syrian civil war, which has been responsible for damage to other world heritage sites such as Krak des Chevaliers and the Citadel of Palmyra; as well as Erdoğan’s demonstrations of political control following a failed coup d’état in 2014. The Question must be asked: is the conversion of the Hagia Sophia going to make Turkey a more conservative and less tolerant nation? And moreover, is this conversion simply a device through which Erdoğan hopes to expand his traditionalist and perhaps anti-western political agenda?
The tumultuous history surrounding the Hagia Sophia should be enough to cement its status as a cultural heritage site – instead, the Turkish government has been allowed to push this history into the backseat. The Hagia Sophia is no ordinary building; having been used as a cathedral, a mosque and a museum, it has been of paramount importance in uniting people of all faiths – as well as those of no faith at all – in their appreciation of the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture and everything that it represents.
The Hagia Sophia was commissioned by Justinian I in 537 AD; since then, it has been widely regarded as the paragon of Byzantine architecture. Procopius, undoubtedly the most famous Byzantine historian, describes the cathedral as being “distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling in both its size, and in the harmony of its measures”. Not only this, but the building was also the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church in the Patriarchate of Constantinople – this meant that its capture and conversion by the Ottomans in 1453 was a catastrophe for the Eastern Church and one that ended almost 1000 years of the building’s designation as a cathedral.
The dualities of Christian and Islamic usage present in the history of the Hagia Sophia were reconciled in 1934 when the mosque was converted into a museum; this happened as a result of the creation of the new Republic of Turkey following the decline of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. As a secularist republic, Turkey’s government was interested in creating a nation that would allow Muslims, Jews and Christians to live side by side in relative harmony – the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a museum was one small part of this process.
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The election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2007, marked a significant shift in Turkish views on secularism and religious tolerance. It would certainly seem that the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is an extension of Erdoğan’s Islamisation and has long been an aim of Turkish Islamists – particularly those in the AKP. Indeed, in a city that is already home to a number of large mosques, including the Blue Mosque, the Big Selimiye Mosque and the Çamlıca Mosque, one can only wonder what reason could exist for the conversion of the Hagia Sophia if it was not as a demonstration of the avenue down which Erdoğan intends to lead his country.
The landmark ruling made by the Turkish Council of State on 10th July 2020, deemed that the conversion of the Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum had been unlawful. The ruling was swiftly followed by a declaration by the president that the building would again be used as a mosque. Despite the celebration from Erdoğan’s supporters, there has undoubtedly been a realisation amongst many, especially in the west, that this move comes as part of the wider agenda of the president and the AKP. Indeed, this is an idea corroborated by Selim Koru of the New York Times who makes the assertion that Turkish Islamists believe that the Turkish Republic had “sold its soul to Western modernity” and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a museum was “the symbol of this humiliation”. As such, Erdoğan’s conversion of the building represents an emphatic movement towards a traditionalist Turkey, one that bears the hallmarks of the late Ottoman Empire.
What must be considered moving forward is the effect that this shift will have on the status of the Hagia Sophia as a symbol of the history and culture of both the Anatolian and Balkan Peninsulas – a history that stretches back 1500 years. Whilst it has been confirmed that the Hagia Sophia will remain open to tourists outside of prayer times, it would still appear that the Turkish Government is making an attempt to obscure the heritage that surrounds the building, much in the same way that curtains now obscure the building’s surviving imagery during prayer times.
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