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Hagia Sophia: Was the Conversion Really Necessary?
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul: the name denotes ‘Holy Wisdom’ in Greek.

22 July 2020   |   2020+   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

The inside of this domed cathedral, constructed in 537 CE by the Roman Emperor Justinian I, is an iconic reminder of a rich Byzantine Christian history. Furthermore, it has also been for many Christians over many centuries a testimony of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) as the New Rome. A reminder here that the founder of the Byzantine Empire and its first emperor, Constantine the Great, had moved the capital of the Roman Empire to the city of Byzantium in 330 CE, and renamed it Constantinople.

But in 1453, the Ottoman Turkish Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city and converted the cathedral into a mosque. And the beautiful Arabic inscriptions in the building also stand witness to almost five centuries when it served as a Muslim house of worship. Thereafter, in 1935, the secular leader of Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, converted it into a museum, a meeting point for East and West and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985.

As a Christian Turkish friend wrote recently in his blog entitled Requiem for my Hagia Sophia, this building is also in the eyes of many people akin to a palimpsest, whose history has been written, erased, re-written. So whether I look at this building with my own Armenian Christian prism, or whether I also consider it a house of worship for Muslims, let alone a museum where civilisations cohabited rather than simply clashed, this building is in its essence a holy gift to all humanity - be that Christians, Muslims or aesthetes.

However, agreeing that it is a reflection of holy space, did Hagia Sophia also retain its wisdom following the re-re-conversion into a mosque? I would argue that the crystalline ethos of Hagia Sophia, merging holiness with wisdom, changed alas on 10 July 2020 when Turkey’s highest administrative court ruled that the government could re-convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had recently pushed to restore its status as a mosque, claiming that international pressure to keep it as a museum was a violation of Turkey’s national sovereignty. As I pen this blog, I understand that Hagia Sophia will open its gates for Muslim worship as Ayasofya-i Kebir Camii on 24th July, where some of the the Byzantine Christian mosaics will be covered with curtains during prayer times. Ironically, prayers on that first day will coincide with the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 which incidentally founded the modern-day Republic of Turkey.

But why did President Erdogan push for a re-conversion 85 years after it had become a museum? After all, is he not also on record suggesting that the re-conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque was not appropriate? So is this decision, validated by a court, merely the move of a pious Muslim faithful who weds himself politically to Islamism? Or can one detect in his actions the seeds of an Islamic Reconquista of sorts? Does his move perhaps harbour domestic, regional as well as global ambitions? And like many other politicians worldwide, has Erdogan also fallen prey to his belief in his own persuasive and even invincible powers?

Let me moot a few points that might provide some food for thought or even help explain his controversial move:

  • Turkey today is suffering from the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Its economy is wobbly and considerably weaker than in years past. It is also involved in foreign adventures in Syria, Libya, Iraqi Kurdistan and the Southern Caucasus. The next parliamentary and presidential elections due in 2023 and could well happen sooner. So given the concatenation of all these factors that are slowly eroding President Erdogan’s popularity and that of his AKP party, his decision to re-convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque might be a political attempt at rallying his base by changing the conversation. Besides, Turkey has thousands of mosques in Istanbul today anyway and the largest mosque, Çamlıca Mosque in the Asian side of Istanbul, was inaugurated by President Erdogan in 2019.
  • But could it be that there is more than meets the eye with this decision to re-re-convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque? In my opinion, it could well be that President Erdogan’s strong religious instincts, coupled with his populist demeanour, mean that he is trying to get rid of Kemalism in Turkey, and in so doing also reverting Turkey to a neo-Ottoman era when it was an empire steeped in its religion, its grandeur, its power and ultimately its decline. In a sense, he possibly thinks - in my opinion, mistakenly - that this act will recreate a political narrative that will re-energise his supporters, and lead him triumphantly toward the celebration in 2023 of the centenary of the modern-day Republic of Turkey.
  • But let me also divert a little from Erdogan and focus also on the Christians in Turkey. These Christian communities consist at best (and I believe this to be an inflation in numbers) of some 100,000 men and women - largely Armenian Orthodox, but also Greek Orthodox, Syriacs, Catholics and Protestants. They are chary of challenging the government and raising their profile. Or else, life might get considerably tougher for them. So the remonstrations by the worldwide fellowship of Christians outside Turkey - their brothers and sisters in Christ - must not be such that they render the lives of these Christians more precarious than they already are today. Besides, let us not forget that the conversion was not strictly from a church to a mosque, but rather from a museum, and so the statements might in one sense sound a tad disingenuous to those who already suspect that Christians might be evincing anti-Muslim or anti-Turkish sentiments. Moreover, the protests by states, organisations or individuals will in all likelihood run out of steam soon as other issues crop up, with the result that the Christians inside the country will be left alone to deal with Erdogan’s ire.

But does all this mean that Christians - especially us in Europe - should stay mum? Far from it! But we should marry passion with reason, and we should be culturally more sensitive to the words we deploy when we criticise Turkey for its actions. The conversion of Hagia Sophia is not the real address for misfired Islamophobia or anti-Turkish and anti-Erdogan political expostulations. In fact, I would add further that Hagia Sophia should not be about Christian loss or Muslim gain, about chauvinism or triumphalism. It should not be used for underlying political fears or for settling personal scores. Rather, we should all strive to maintain it as a symbol of multi-faith relations, a reminder to the world that Turkey was also a fertile ground for our own Christian biblical history. Surely the events that unfolded there must help solder the followers of two monotheistic traditions let alone weld different civilizational cultures into one holy and wise space - like this cathedral, mosque, museum, and now mosque again.

Sadly, my wish might sound to many ears as being unreasonable, impractical, defeatist, naïve and even outlandish if not also outrageous. Others might suggest that it is also removed from the pugnacious realities of the real world - minus any misplaced idealism. Perhaps so, and therefore one likely consequence of this untimely and ill-advised conversion of Hagia Sophia is that it will result in the scarring of multi-faith relations let alone the further souring of relations with many European countries. Conversely, it will allow Erdogan to feed popular and false misperceptions that portray him as a persecuted leader struggling to revive the glory of Islam.

My question in this blog today is quite basic: did Erdogan really need to do it? I would posit that this latest undertaking by President Erdogan and of his acolytes or advisors was decidedly neither holy nor wise.

An edited version of this piece was originally published in Christianity magazine

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2020+   |   22 July 2020


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