Built in the 6th century, Hagia Sophia has been, for long, considered as the symbol of Turkey’s cosmopolitanism. President Erdogan’s decision to re-convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque has led to increasing questions regarding the trajectory of Turkish secularism on which the modern Turkish republic was founded. This paper looks briefly at the history of Hagia Sophia and analyses the impact of the decision taken by the Turkish government. It will also look at various reactions to the development.
Brief History of Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya in Turkish - was built in year 537 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I as a basilica for the Greek Orthodox Christian Church. It played a significant role in Byzantine culture for the next 900 years. It was converted into a Roman Catholic Cathedral after the city of Constantinople was raided by the Crusaders between 1204 and 1261. It was reclaimed by the Byzantines in 1261 when they took control of the city from the Romans. The next significant change in the history of Hagia Sophia began in 1453 when the Ottoman ruler Fatih Sultan Mehmed converted Hagia Sophia into a Mosque. The fate of Hagia Sophia changed again in 1935, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in an effort to project the secular ideals of the new Turkish republic converted it into a museum “to be opened to visits of all nations and religions”. For the next 85 years, Hagia Sophia functioned as a museum and was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1985.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan on 10 July 2020 announced the decision to annul the status of the Hagia Sophia from a museum into a mosque. This was done after Turkey’s highest administrative Court struck down the 1934 Cabinet decree that turned Hagia Sophia into a museum. It granted Turkey’s president the authority to restore the museum to its status as a working mosque. This decision resulted in diverse opinions and reactions around the world and prompted UNESCO to call on Turkey to preserve the World Heritage Site. Its statement highlighted that Hagia Sophia was a testimony of interactions between Asia and Europe over the centuries and that “This decision raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property’s universal value”.[ii]
Reactions to the Decision
The decision by President Erdogan can be seen in the context of the consolidation of his Islamic base in the country. The nationalists and conservatives have for a long time called for the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, while the opponents see this move by President Erdogan as a way to strengthen his conservative voters’ base and dilute the secular ideals of the republic. Opinions ranged across the spectrum - in an opinion poll conducted by Istanbul Economy Research - 46.9% of respondents favouredHagia Sophia being opened to Muslim worship and 38.8% said it should remain a museum.[iii] While in another poll conducted by Metropoll Research, 43.8% of Turkish people believed that the conversion is an attempt to change the agenda of the country and divert the public attention away from the economic crisis, while 11.7% said “the aim is to come with up with an argument which the rulership wants to use prior to the [potential] early election and which it believes will be effective.”[iv]
Although the reactions from the Arab countries have been muted, the responses from the Islamic religious leaders werefavourable to the decision with the EkremaSabri, the preacher of Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque congratulating President Erdogan “for converting Hagia Sophia back to a mosque because it belongs to all Muslims”[v]. Similar sentiments were also expressed by Grand Mufti of Oman, Ahmed bin Hamad al-Khalili “for converting Hagia Sophia back to a house of worship where Allah authorised his name to be raised and mentioned”.[vi]
However, the decision was opposed by leaders of various Churches. The Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch expressed his “deep concern” about the status of “one of the biggest monuments of Christian civilisation which is extremely dear to the Russian Church.”[vii]The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Theophilos III, also released a statement emphasising that - “the present status of the Hagia Sophiais to be respected and preserved”.[viii]Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians, said converting it into a mosque would disappoint Christians and would “fracture” East and West. The World Council of Churches also called on President RecepTayyip Erdogan to reverse his decision “in the interests of promoting mutual understanding, respect, dialogue and co-operation, and avoiding cultivating old animosities and divisions”.[ix] Pope Francis also released a statement - “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained.”[x]
Internationally, the decision has pitted Turkey against Greece, with both sides engaging in hyper-rhetoric and protests erupting in Greece. In its statement, Greek Foreign Ministry stated that “this decision – coming 85 years after it was declared a museum – is an insult to its ecumenical character…The decision affects not only Turkey’s relations with Greece, but those with the European Union, UNESCO, and the global community as a whole.”[xi] The European Union’s High Representative Josef Borrell also condemned the decision, calling Hagia Sophia as a symbol of historical and universal values.[xii] The Foreign Minister of Cyprus also issued a statement strongly condemning the acts calling them an effort to “distract domestic opinion… from [Turkey’s] escalating, flagrant violation of its international obligations.”[xiii]Turkey is already engaged in a dispute with Greece and Cyprus over the exploration of hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean, this move threatens to further isolate the country.
The conversion of the Hagia Sophia has drawn little criticism within Turkey, with the sole criticism coming from GaroPaylan, member of the Turkish Parliament from oppositionPeople’s Democratic Party (HDP). He said that “[it is] a sad day for Christians and for all who believe in a pluralist Turkey…The decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque will make life more difficult for Christians here and for Muslims in Europe”[xiv]. The conversion of Hagia Sophia along with decision of 21 August 2020 to convert another Byzantine structure, Kariye Museum[xv] into a mosquehighlights two key trends – first, it appears to be consolidating conservatives’ votes for the ruling party by distancing Turkey from Ataturk’s secular principles to reinforce the Islamic identity of the country. Although, President Erdogan has sought to reassure the world that when not being used for prayer, the Hagia Sophia would remain open to the public, and that Christian frescoes would remain on display, though covered with curtains during Muslim prayers. Both the moves have added to growing concerns in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian communities with the Greek foreign ministry calling thedecision as “yet another provocation against religious persons everywhere by the Turkish government”[xvi].
Second, as Turkey is reeling under the pressures created by the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, the decision appears as an attempt to divert the attention of the public from the socio-economic problems of the country.Internationally, the reactions have ranged from regret to outrage and the move has further damaged relations with Greece, for which Hagia Sophia as well as Kariye Museumare an important Orthodox Christian monument. The reconversion is as symbolic as it is emotionally and politically charged and President Erdogan is sure to take full advantage of the situation to further his political gains by presenting these reactions as interference in the Turkish domestic affairs.
*Dr. Ankita Dutta is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal
‘Turkey's President Formally Re-Converts Hagia Sophia Into a Mosque’, Time Magazine, 10 July 2020, https://time.com/5865524/hagia-sophia-formal-mosque/#:~:text=Turkey's%20highest%20administrative%20court%20on%20Friday%20issued%20a%20ruling%20that,a%20Muslim%20house%20of%20worship, Accessed on 30 July 2020
[ii] UNESCO Statement on Hagia Sophia, 10 July 2020, https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-statement-hagia-sophia-istanbul, Accessed on 30 July 2020
[iii]CBS News, 10 July 2020, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hagia-sophia-istanbul-turkey-president-erdogan-mosque-declares-open-muslim-worship/#:~:text=A%20poll%20conducted%20in%20June,to%20worship%20for%20all%20religions., Accessed on 30 July 2020
[iv]DuvaR.english, 10 July 2002, https://www.duvarenglish.com/domestic/2020/07/10/44-pct-of-turks-believe-conversion-of-hagia-sophia-an-attempt-to-divert-public-attention-away-from-economic-crisis/, Accessed on 30 July 2020
[v]Eurasian Times, 13 July 2020, https://eurasiantimes.com/arab-world-hails-turksih-decision-to-turn-hagia-sophia-into-a-mosque/, Accessed on 30 July 2020
[vii]Ekathimerini, 6 July 2020, https://www.ekathimerini.com/254419/article/ekathimerini/news/russian-orthodox-church-calls-on-turkey-to-be-prudent-over-hagia-sophia, Accessed on 31 July 2020
[viii]The National Herald, 11 July 2020, https://www.thenationalherald.com/community_church_world/arthro/patriarch_of_jerusalem_released_statement_on_hagia_sophia_status-576225/, Accessed on 31 July 2020
[xi]Greek Reporter, 10 July 2020, https://greece.greekreporter.com/2020/07/10/greece-calls-erdogans-decision-on-hagia-sophia-a-provocation/, Accessed on 31 July 2020
[xii]‘Statement by the High Representative/Vice-President JosepBorrell on the decision regarding Hagia Sophia’, 10 July, EEAS, Brussels, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/82728/turkey-statement-high-representativevice-president-josep-borrell-decision-regarding-hagia_en, Accessed on 31 July 2020
[xiii]‘Turkey's President Formally Re-Converts Hagia Sophia Into a Mosque’, Time Magazine, 10 July 2020, https://time.com/5865524/hagia-sophia-formal-mosque/, Accessed on 31 July 2020
[xiv]Zartonk Media, 13 July 2020, https://zartonkmedia.com/2020/07/13/garo-paylan-decision-to-convert-hagia-sophia-into-mosque-will-make-life-more-difficult-for-christians-in-turkey/, Accessed on 24 August 2020
[xv]Kariye Museum shares a similar history with Hagia Sophia. The Holy Saviour in Chora was a medieval Byzantine church decorated with 14th-century frescoes of the Last Judgment is of great importance to the Christian world. It was converted into the Kariye Mosque after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks. It became the Kariye Museum after World War II as Turkey pushed ahead with the creation of a more secular new republic.
[xvi]France24, 22 August 2020, https://www.france24.com/en/20200822-after-hagia-sophia-turkey-s-erdogan-turns-another-former-church-into-mosque, Accessed on 24 August 2020