On July 10th, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s iconic landmark, will once again become a mosque. The news has caused uproar and raised controversy across the international community as it is the latest major step Erdogan has taken towards a process of de-secularization in Turkey.
The Hagia Sophia was first built in Constantinople in the 537 CE upon orders from the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, and stood as a symbol to Orthodox Christianity for centuries. Conceived by the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus, it remains a masterpiece. The base of the dome is pierced by windows: when the day is bright, the light obscures the supports, giving the impression that the canopy floats on air. The cathedral was turned into a mosque after the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, and made into a museum nearly 500 years later, in 1934, by Ataturk’s secular government. A decision made last Friday by Turkey’s highest court has annulled Ataturk’s decree.
This ruling has been denounced by the international community at large. UNESCO has said that the World Heritage Committee will review the monument’s status as a World Heritage Site, and called for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved.
“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue,” said Director-General of UNESCO Audrey Azoulay.
The Pope has joined representatives from the Russian Orthodox Church and the World Council of Churches in expressing their concerns of the decision. Archbishop Ieronymos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church, declared that this decision was the “instrumentalization of religion to partisan or geopolitical ends”.
Erdogan has rejected such broad condemnation, arguing that Turkey is simply using its own sovereign rights. Nonetheless, the move opposes the principles of secularism that drove the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, and further symbolizes the turn towards a religious mandate that has characterized Erdogan’s government since he ascended to power in 2002. The timing of this decision raises further questions. The mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamogly, asked whether this issue needed to be brought up at a point when 97% of tourism to Turkey has frozen.
The move additionally shifts the symbolism of the Hagia Sophia from an ideal of common artistic and cultural values, transcending religion, into one that represents a single faith. Erdogan is making a clear claim over his position as a leader Turkey, a country that stands just 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) away from Europe at its closes point in the Aegean, and has the second largest army in NATO. Under his leadership, Turkey is taking a steep turn towards nationalist politics that celebrate the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, in a way that resonates across the world under the current political climate.
The Washington Post reports that the move appeals to Erdogan’s base and asserts his political brand, as it is representative of a form of nationalism that is anchored in religion, in contrast with the position defended by secular and Christian Turks. According to the Turkish government, the decision to resume prayers in the Hagia Sophia will not limit access to the monument from visitors from all around the world. The AKP, Erdogan’s party, has said that mosaics and other Christian imagery will be covered during prayer, but uncovered for visitors to see and appreciate.
Like most places of worship, a regular flux of traditions underscores the history of this monument: the original church was built on the foundations of a pagan temple. When we read about them in encyclopedias or textbooks, their dialectical oppositions form part of our understanding of the inevitable impact of time. As a student, I would write down dates and memorize them before my tests: 532-537CE, construction years; 1453, the fall of the Byzantine Empire; 1853, Crimean War; 1922, fall of the Ottoman Empire and instauration of the Republic of Turkey. Tectonic movements in history represented by one single number.
It doesn’t escape me that these dates which we are so vehemently taught in school are nothing but symbolic moments that represent a longer struggle within and across nations. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I imagine these radical events seemed transcendent to those who lived through them (even without Twitter or a 24 hour news cycle). The decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is the latest case in nearly 20 years of gradual shifts away from secularism in Turkey. It is left for us to determine whether this last transcendence, given the history of the country, is one that should be embraced or feared. Undoubtedly, this will represent a moment in history that is written on timelines and presented in textbooks, as a new form of government gains traction in an old republic.