IT is a living monument to history, one that Byzantine emperors, Ottoman sultans and Turkish nation-builders have used to project their power, and the direction the state should take. While opinion is mixed over the change of Hagia Sophia’s status — back to a mosque from a museum — the iconic Istanbul structure has a complex history, one that bears witness to the epic changes the region has witnessed since antiquity. On Friday, a top Turkish court decided that the Istanbul landmark would once more become a mosque; just under a century ago, Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, decided to change it to a museum in his quest to secularise his country. However, current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who some see as wanting to rebuild the Ottoman Empire’s prestige, had pushed for Hagia Sophia to once more become a mosque, and has now got what he wanted. Unesco, which had declared the structure a World Heritage Site, said it “deeply regrets” the move while Greece and Russia, who consider themselves heirs to the Byzantine civilisation, have cried foul over the change.
Inside Hagia Sophia’s majestic halls, one can witness where empires, faiths and ideologies collided, and left their mark on this magnificent structure. While Christian icons adorn its domes, equally outstanding examples of Islamic calligraphy hang from its walls. The Byzantines had originally built the structure as a church in the sixth century while in 1453 Ottoman Sultan Mehmet ‘Fatih’, after capturing Constantinople, converted the structure into a mosque. However, Mustafa Kemal —Eurocentric in many respects — changed it to a museum in 1934, while today, Mr Erdogan has succeeded in once more changing its status. Indeed, there are plenty of stunning mosques dotting Istanbul, and one can ask why the Turkish leader has courted a new controversy by changing Hagia Sophia’s status. Moreover, Muslim minorities in Europe may face issues of religious freedom, as rightist governments could use Turkey’s decision to deny permission to build or renovate mosques on their own soil.
Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2020