GP Insights # 381, 11 July 2020
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on 10 July that Istanbul's iconic museum Hagia Sophia would now become a mosque once again, thereby reversing a legacy of the country's modern founder, who converted the site to a museum more than eight decades ago. In a televised address, Erdogan said that prayers would start at the compound in two weeks and that Hagia Sophia, originally a Byzantine Christian cathedral and later an Ottoman mosque, would remain open and accessible to visitors from all over the world.
What is the background?
First, Hagia Sophia as the universal symbol of all faiths. As Erdogan seeks to restore Hagia Sophia as a mosque, it is important to remember that the architecture represents a merging of several historical periods and two primary religious faiths. The building, commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and designed by architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, was inaugurated in 537 and for centuries was the largest church for the orthodox Christian community. When it was converted into a mosque in 1453, as the Ottomans conquered Istanbul, minarets were placed around its perimeter by whitewashing the Byzantine mosaics. As Turkey became a republic under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, he brought the Byzantine Christian and the Ottoman Islamic past together as a collection of memory to coexist within a museum in 1934.
Second, Erdogan's return to the Ottoman past is a political act. The President's focus on the reversal of Hagia Sophia to the status of the mosque indicates the continuation of his neo-Ottoman policy of projecting Turkey as a Muslim majority country. With this step, he has attempted to whip up political support that has been waning. An attempt to swing the Turkish electorate behind the AKP also brings with it a dangerous precedent of galvanizing a religious-nationalist sentiment among the populace.
What does it mean?
First, Hagia Sophia's conversion into a mosque is not a unique or isolated incident under President Erdogan. Erdogan has previously converted three other Byzantine church museums as mosques. While establishing places of worship is an essential step towards recognizing the freedom to practice one's own faith, but eliminating museums in order to do so indicates an active political impulse in rewriting the cultural reverence of coexistence that the structure symbolizes. The political message by Erdogan has been clear with this reversal of Ataturk's most symbolic steps, and it will sideline the minorities under this religious majoritarian garb.
Second, the step is likely to mark a return of fresh tensions with Greek. When Greece protested the planned change last month, urging Turkey to act as a neutral custodian of a site that was once the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Erdogan snapped back with a telling that Hagia Sophia should be left to Turkey to decide. This adds to the series of tensions that have been brewing between Athens and Ankara over refugees influx, energy rights in the eastern Mediterranean waters and territorial rights over the Aegean sea.