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Church, mosque and museum – the Hagia Sophia could be all things to all people

4 April 2019

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) was a church for almost a millennium, a mosque for almost five centuries, and has now been a museum for going on 85 years. But how much longer it will stay one remains to be seen. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an ardent secularist with the kind of political capital that could only come from personally defeating a Greek army, converted the Byzantine church turned Ottoman mosque into a Turkish museum.

Since then, Turkish Islamists and conservative nationalists have long been eager to reverse the decision, and it now often feels like only a matter of time till they do. As with celebrity obituaries, some foreign correspondents may already have their stories drafted in anticipation.

Hagia Sophia’s future made news most recently as a result of the Christchurch attacks, the perpetrator of which referred to its status as a mosque. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was both threatened by name in the manifesto and also in the middle of an election campaign, responded quickly. ‘From 16,500 kilometres away they want to seize Ayasofya […]. Now, God willing, we will rename it as a mosque,’ he declared at a rally in Istanbul last month.

‘Ayasofya must become a mosque again to thwart those who would revive Byzantium‘, from an early 1950s cartoon published in the Islamist newspaper Buyuk Dogu (The Great East).

‘Ayasofya must become a mosque again to thwart those who would revive Byzantium’, from an early 1950s cartoon published in the Islamist newspaper Buyuk Dogu (The Great East). Courtesy the author

Unfortunately, Hagia Sophia’s history and grandeur have made it irresistible to competing civilisational chauvinisms, turning the building into a symbolic prize for those who are more interested in possessing it than worshipping in it. Strikingly, in the Islamophobic or anti-Western rhetoric of Christian or Islamic radicals respectively, claiming the Hagia Sophia is transformed into a protective measure. Turkish Islamists have consistently presented Hagia Sophia‘s conversion into a mosque as a necessary warning to hostile Christians who supposedly covet Turkish territory. And now, in the minds of a handful of white nationalists in the West, seizing the site has become linked, via violent fantasy, to stopping the supposed Muslim takeover of Europe and America. On both sides, bigotry is couched in the language of self-defence, and justified with reference to the other side’s presumed hostility.

Several commentators have identified a potential alternative to having a holy war: why not let Muslims pray in Ayasofya on Fridays, Christians pray in Hagia Sophia on Sunday and museum-goers enjoy the site’s architectural splendour under any name they want for the rest of the week? Both faiths seem to have accepted in principle that the building can go from mosque to church or church to mosque. Would the difference between doing so over the course of days or centuries really matter from a divine perspective? Icons – crucial for orthodox worship but anathema in Islam – could be covered up or removed. Carpets, which cover the floors of mosques, could be laid out or lifted up as needed.

No one is holding their breath for such a syncretic solution at the moment. The pressing question is what might be lost in Hagia Sophia’s next transformation. When the Ottoman sultan Fatih Sultan Mehmet II conquered Istanbul in 1453 and first made the building a mosque, he simply plastered over its Byzantine mosaics. Whether this was, as some Turkish writers optimistically claimed, a sign of his respect for the arts, it was certainly crucial to the works’ preservation. Later, in the 20th century, the conservative historian İbrahim Hakkı Konyalı boasted that when Ayasofya’s minarets were slated for destruction he saved them by fooling an ignorant museum administrator into believing their removal might bring down the whole dome. More recently, the Turkish government has earned a reputation for what the academic Ebru Erdem-Akçay has termed ‘restroying’ old buildings – stripping them of all beauty and historic character in overly aggressive restorations.

If nothing else, having survived rival religious agendas for this long, Hagia Sophia appears better prepared to endure the next round with dignity than many of the world’s political leaders.

Nicholas Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

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