On July 24, 2020 an Imam walked up the pulpit (mimbar) and delivered the sermon (khutba) holding an Ottoman sword in the recently reconverted Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. This event, relayed across the world live, was the first time Friday prayers were said in the Hagia Sophia in 86 years. Both the significance of the conversion of the museum into a mosque and the Ottoman sword were not lost on the world. By his actions, Turkish President Erdogan has issued a dramatic challenge: to Turkey, the Muslim Ummah, Muslim-Christian relations and the world.
Hagia Sophia was and is no ordinary building. Built as the largest and the most important church in Christendom, when it was consecrated on December 27, 537 AD, Emperor Justinian exclaimed: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” in reference to the majestic temple Solomon had built in Jerusalem. For the nearly 1,000 years it was a cathedral, Hagia Sophia — Holy Wisdom in Greek — was the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, second only to the Pope in Rome till the schism in 1054 AD, and then the head of the Orthodox Church.
It is noted that its high altar was of solid gold, while over 40 kilogrammes of silver adorned the sanctuary alone. The mosaics which dotted the building were the work of masters — a marvel of art, iconography and the grandeur of the Byzantine Empire. Thus, the Hagia Sophia was no regular church, and its significance in the life of the Christian Church, as well as the Byzantine Empire, cannot be overestimated.
On May 28, 1453, as Ottoman soldiers surrounded the formidable walls of Constantinople and defeat seemed imminent, the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, paid one last visit to the centre of Christendom in the East. At the Divine Liturgy, prayers were said for the deliverance of the city, and later the emperor gave a stirring speech to his small army of Greeks, Venetians and Genoans — hardly 7,000 facing the over-200,000 strong Turks. Historian Edward Gibbon called it the “funeral oration of the Roman Empire.”
As the clock struck past midnight and it was Tuesday, May 29, the final Ottoman assault began. The Byzantines fought, but they were severely outnumbered, tired, and with no real help coming from the West, increasingly resigned to their fate. Then, early in the morning, a small gate was mistakenly left open around the Romanus gate, and a number of Turkish soldiers came in. As a leader of the defenders was injured, a general confusion ensued, leading to more Turkish soldiers making inroads. Soon the Turkish flag was on top of a tower, and a cry rang out in the city: “The city is taken.”
The Sultan had promised three days of plunder to his troops, and he remained true to his word. The Greek accounts are simply horrifying, and even Greeks who were in the employ of the Ottomans, like Kritovoulos, could not tone down the horrors. Kritovoulos noted that after the Turks entered the city: “Then a great slaughter occurred of those who happened to be there…and the City was reduced to slavery…Others went to the robbing of churches, and others dispersed to the simple homes of the common people, stealing, robbing, plundering, killing…handsome and lovely maidens of splendid and renowned families, till then unsullied by male eyes — some of these were dragged by force from their chambers and hauled off pitilessly and dishonourably…”
Akpaazade, an Ottoman chronicler, also noted the pillage of the city, though understandably in subdued tones: “[For warriors] pillages were excellent and satisfactory…They took captive the inhabitants… The ghazis embraced the beautiful ladies...” Byzantium, Second Rome, had truly fallen.
In reversing the status of the Hagia Sophia, Turkey’s President Erdogan has issued a challenge, not only to the secular roots of Ataturk’s Turkey, but also to the Muslim Ummah, Muslim-Christian relations and the world
As Constantinople was falling, the people of the city flocked to its most sacred location: the Hagia Sophia. Legend had it that when Constantinople would be attacked and defeat was near, an angel would appear at Hagia Sophia, to fight the invaders and drive them back to the borders of Persia. But no angel appeared, and only the chants of the priests and monks sustained the thousands who had taken refuge.
The historian Ducas noted: “…the whole huge sanctuary was full of men and women, below, above and in the surrounding halls — everywhere — an immeasurable multitude. And shutting the gate, they stood there fervently hoping for deliverance by the angel. Then — fighting all about, killing, taking prisoners — the Turks came to the church, when the first hour of the day was not yet flown. And where they found the doors shut, they battered these in with axes, without compunction.”
As the triple doors of the Hagia Sophia collapsed, Turkish soldiers poured in: men were killed, women and children tied down, and priests and monks who were still chanting matins were killed on the sanctuary. Thereafter, a general plunder of the Hagia Sophia took place. Sacred books, places and vessels were desecrated, precious metals and jewels taken out, and even the marble floor of the great church was dug up. A legend also grew from that day that some priests chanting the divine liturgy had been subsumed by the walls of the great church, and that they would one day return when the church would be restored to Christian worship.
The Sultan, Mehmet, initially did not enter the city, allowing his troops to plunder it to their hearts’ content. By about midday, he rode into the city and was immediately struck by the state it had been reduced to. Mehmet lamented: “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction!” He then went straight to the Hagia Sophia, dismounted and went in. He walked up to the High Altar, and an Imam was brought in to give the azaan. The Sultan offered his midday prayers in the Hagia Sophia. From that day onwards, the largest church in Christendom became a mosque. There was no sale, no compensation, just raw conquer. The rest, as they say, is history.
The conversion of places of worship after conquest has been the norm till recent times. When Rome converted to Christianity, Roman temples were repurposed as churches, and when Spain was reconquered, several mosques were converted into churches. The famous Umayyad mosque in Cordoba, itself built on an earlier Visigoth church, was converted into a church in 1236, and has become a legend in itself. Similarly, a number of churches were converted or destroyed to make mosques as Muslim armies conquered Christian lands. One of the more famous of such conversions was the destruction of the Basilica of St John the Baptist in Damascus and the erection of the Umayyad mosque in its place by Caliph al-Walid in 706 AD. As it happens, the basilica itself was built upon an earlier Temple of Jupiter.
On May 28, 1453, as Ottoman soldiers surrounded the formidable walls of Constantinople and defeat seemed imminent, the Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, paid one last visit to the centre of Christendom in the East.
When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, several churches were converted into mosques. Many still remain as mosques throughout Istanbul and the rest of Turkey. But the conversion of the Hagia Sophia in 1453 into a mosque remains most significant. The status of Hagia Sophia as the centre of Eastern Christianity, its stature as the then largest church in the world, and its centrality to the Byzantine Empire made it into a powerful symbol. Its loss not only spelt the death knell for Eastern Christianity, it also sent a chill throughout Western Europe, where even the Pope feared an end of Christendom.
For the Ottomans too, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was central to their regal claim. Soon several legends began to spread about the conversion, and it was even said that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) foretold the conversion of the church into a mosque. Thus, the symbolism of the Hagia Sophia, its status and control, have been strong since 537 AD.
The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia by Turkish President Erdogan last month has served as a challenge on many fronts. First, it is a challenge to the Turkish state itself. Forged by the Young Turks under Mustafa Kemal ‘Ataturk’, modern Turkey wanted to build itself as a secular nation, after the end of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. Ataturk’s vision was modernisation and secularisation of the Turkish state, and it was done fiercely. While the people remained very close to their religion and traditions, the state became avowedly secular, modern and, in certain key respects, Western. The decision of the Turkish cabinet in 1934 to convert the then Aya Sophia Mosque into a museum was in as much a break from the Ottoman past as it was to signal a new Turkey. Ataturk’s Turkey wanted both its Byzantine and Ottoman past to exist not in opposition and conflict, but in peace and harmony. The symbolism of the 1934 act was therefore immense.
The 2020 conversion of Hagia Sophia is thus a powerful break with Ataturk’s Turkey. The vision of the ‘Father of the Turks’ is being rejected by Erdogan’s Turkey. In reversing the status of the building, Erdogan has not only repudiated the secular roots of modern Turkey, but also its attempt to reconcile and own its Byzantine history. The coffin of Ataturk’s Turkey was lowered by Erdogan in the Hagia Sophia on July 24.
Hagia Sophia’s conversion is also a sign by Erdogan to the Muslim world. At a time when the Muslim world is divided in many camps, Erdogan is forcefully reviving the memory of the Ottoman Empire and showcasing his leadership of the Islamic world. With both Saudi Arabia and Egypt antagonistic towards Erdogan, and many other Muslim majority states oblivious, this move will endear him with not only his own population, but also people across the Muslim world. At a time when the Muslim world is seemingly leaderless, this action — and that too in the old Caliphate capital of Constantinople — showcases Erdogan as the new Caliph who strives for Islam’s ‘victory’, more than anyone else in the Muslim world.
No wonder then, the Arabic note circulated by Erdogan’s office after the announcement noted that, “The revival of Hagia Sophia is a greeting of peace sent out from the depths of our hearts to all of the cities which represent our culture, beginning with Bukhara, all the way to Andalusia.” Hence, this move will be used to further cement his leadership in the Islamic world, and force other leaders to fall in line.
Erdogan’s conversion of the Hagia Sophia has also been an unimaginable blow to Muslim-Christian relations. Aside from the initial few years after the coming of Islam, Christianity and Islam have been at loggerheads. The battle between the Byzantines and the Turks was not so much a fight between two empires, but between two religious ideologies. Both called each other infidels, and both roused their troops through religion invocations. Thus, when the Byzantine Empire was defeated, Sultan Mehmet did not go to the Imperial Palace — the seat of government — or even asked about the Byzantine Emperor. His first stop was the Hagia Sophia, the seat of religion. It was conquering this edifice and converting it into a mosque which signified for Mehmet his leadership of the Muslim Ummah and the defeat of Christendom. In the West, too, there were fewer tears for the end of the Byzantine Empire and a lot more for the loss of the eastern headquarters of the Church.
Despite the fraught history of Muslim-Christian relations in the past, the period since the 1960s has been markedly different. While the visit of Christian leaders to mosques, and vice versa, would lead to anathemas a century ago, today it is common practice. In a landmark reversal of the Catholic Church’s view of Islam, the 1965 document Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council noted: “The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself…they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God.” This statement opened a new door for cordial relations between Christianity and Islam, relations which, despite some setbacks, have improved dramatically in the recent past.
While one cannot go into more details here, suffice to note that on February 4, 2019, Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar signed a joined document on “Human Fraternity,” which called upon followers of both religions to work together for peace. It noted: “In the name of God…Al-Azhar al-Sharif and the Muslims of the East and West, together with the Catholic Church and the Catholics of the East and West, declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard.” It further underscored that, “we resolutely declare that religions must never incite war, hateful attitudes, hostility and extremism, nor must they incite violence or the shedding of blood.” Hence, this and several other joint documents over recent years have started a new chapter in Muslim-Christian relations, where the antagonism of the past has been replaced by respect, where conflict has been replaced by cooperation.
Despite the strong cordial development of Muslim-Christian relations in the recent past, Erdogan’s actions hearken to another time: a time of conflict and war. In celebrating Mehmet and his conquest and conversion of the Hagia Sophia, Erdogan is rejecting the developments made in Muslim-Christian relations. No wonder then that Erdogan exclaimed: “The conquest of Istanbul and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque are among the most glorious chapters of Turkish history.” The usage of the Ottoman sword by the Imam during the sermon was a strong reminder of the mindset of the Ottomans returning and energising the fashioning of the new Turkish state. Hagia Sophia is a symbol of a millennia of Christianity, and its conversion now, after such improved relations between the two religions, is a testament that Erdogan wants to turn the clock back.
Finally, by converting the Hagia Sophia, Erdogan has offered a strong challenge to the world. At a time when people and states are atoning for the sins of the past, and trying to chart a new way, Erdogan is firmly celebrating the crimes of past. Rather than pledging that never again would a place of worship of one religion be converted to another, he is eulogising the conversion. As comparison, it is like putting up a statue of a slave owner precisely for his slave owning, at a time the world is taking them
down. Shunned by the European Union and struggling to shore up support in the Muslim world, Erdogan is the pall bearer of a new civilisational conception which is more dangerous, divisive and destructive than the world has seen in recent memory.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 9th, 2020