A cathedral first, then a mosque, and later a museum. Last week, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia became a mosque once again; an insular act for Turkey’s Erdogan to flex his political mussels and to fuel his posture of indignation and grievance.
The president knows casting cultural divides resonates with many of his support base, inside as well as outside of Turkey. He boosts his popularity and draws strength from his constant tussle with domestic and foreign foemen.
Finished in 537, Hagia Sophia is one of the culminating architectural achievements of the late antiquity and the Byzantine Empire. I first visited this cultural site in 2018 and it soon became apparent to me that this was no ordinary building: it was a manifestation of beauty, a magnificent hybrid of Turkish and European architecture with ornate pillars, mosaics and a breath-taking dome that easily compared with Rome’s finest churches.
The combination of giant Islamic iconography, which was installed by Sultan Mehmed II, as a symbol of imperial faith, and a magnificent picture of a Madonna on its sublime dome, assured me that Istanbul was still the bridge that connects the east to the west.
“Those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.”
Although there may have been many reasons behind the secularisation of the Hagia Sophia and its conversion into a museum in 1934, the move gave a powerful message about what the new Turkey wanted to be: a secular and peaceful nation; a nation made for its citizens regardless of political and religious views; one that not only recognised its diverse past, but also embraced it. Today however, this is no longer the case.
Although a clear political expedient for the president, turning the monument back into a mosque was in no way a surprise; it was a cause close to the hearts of many Turkish islamists and nationalists for decades. Some polls even suggest that a majority of Turks favoured the conversion.
Secularism is becoming a fading force in the Turkish society. Marked by growing authoritarianism and tyranny, Erdogan’s 16 years in power has been nothing but a chipping away of the secular foundations that Mustafa Ataturk had laid during his reforms in the 1920s and 1930s. Erdogan’s obsession with Ataturk’s legacy has turned him into a pugnacious and retrograde leader.
Who is the Hagia Sophia for?
The Hagia Sophia does not belong to musilims and nor does it belong to the Orthodox church. The building is part of UNESCO for a clear reason: it is a gift to all humankind, for believers and non-believers alike.
While I am sceptical that this greet monument will be turned into a museum anytime soon, I am certain that the desire for a secular Turkey will never die. The President will eventually join other dictators in the ash heaps of history.