Joseph Joubert, a French essayist and moralist once said, ‘Monuments are the grappling irons that bind one generation to another’. However, in its 1,500-year-old existence, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey has brought to the surface an age-old tension, which has divided the two largest religions of the world—Islam, and Christianity—for centuries
The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 10th July 2020 officially reconverted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and declared it open to Muslim worshippers, hours after a high court repealed the 1934 order, which had transformed it into a museum. In 2020, Turkey's government is set to celebrate the 567th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. ‘Al-Fateh Surah will be recited and prayers will be done at Hagia Sophia as part of the conquest festival.’ The Turkish president said during a televised broadcast.
A Brief History:
The development of the first design was requested by Constantine I as a church in 325 A.D. on the site of a Pagan Temple. Since its construction, the structure persevered through a few catastrophes like fires and seismic tremors. In the sixth century, a Byzantine head, Justinian I, requested a redesign of the engineering and ended up making an Orthodox Christian Cathedral that came to be one of the most glorious houses of prayer Christianity has ever observed.
In 1453, Sultan Mehmet of the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople, (now known as Istanbul), and toppled the Byzantine realm. The Ottoman Sultan converted the Church into a mosque. For almost 500 years it remained a mosque, until Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern-day Turkey changed declared that the structure would be converted into a museum. Ataturk was a reformer who wanted to show the world that the newly formed Republic of Turkey is as much secular as any other developed country at that time.
The whole situation has been getting worldwide attention as this decision of Turkey has hurt the religious sentiments of Christians all over the world. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul, the head of Orthodox Christians, had said that changing of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque would fracture the relations of the East and the West, in an interview with The Washington Post.
Vladimir Legoida, spokesperson for the Russian Orthodox Church stated, “The concern of millions of Christians has not been heard, today’s court ruling shows that all calls for the need for extreme delicacy in this matter were ignored.”
The US State Department has also reacted and said it was “disappointed” by the verdict and would watch closely Turkey’s plans for the Hagia Sophia.
Greece's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement saying, "a designated museum of world cultural heritage was being to promote other purposes", and also pointed out that this conversion is a violation of UNESCO's 'Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage'.
UNESCO has also reacted to this and tweeted: "UNESCO deeply regrets the decisions of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion and calls for the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved."
Pope Francis said he was ‘very distressed’ over Turkey’s decision, “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I’m thinking about Hagia Sophia”, he further added.
Amidst all this criticism, Turkey found support from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Also, the Turkish prime minister, Ersi Tatar mentioned that "Hagia Sophia has been Turkish, a mosque and a world heritage since 1453. The decision to use it as a mosque, at the same time to be visited as a museum, is sound and it is pleasing."
Secularism in Turkey:
As orthodox nationalism is developing in Turkey, the current government is attempting to push further its religious and nationalistic agenda for electoral gains. The incumbent government's thought processes are quite different from Ataturk, who imagined a secular republic.
A significant explanation for Erdogan’s actions is that his proficiency was being questioned in the country and the people of Turkey were losing faith in him. Mishandling of Covid-19 and some other internal issues are some of the reasons for this measure. And to gain back the people’s trust, Erdogan has been using the nationalist sentiments of the people of Turkey as a tool, time and again. Digging the past, Erdogan came up with the subject of the conversion of Hagia Sophia’s status.
In an interview shortly after the verdict, Nobel prize-winning author, Orhan Pamuk told the BBC, "There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard, to convert it back to a mosque is to say to the rest of the world, unfortunately, we are not secular anymore".
In any case, while numerous analysts in the West hate Erdogan for his Islamist leanings, Erdogan's propaganda rests not on religion but nationalism. Lately, Erdogan has been trying to assemble a populist story, raging against Turkey's secular elites and other enemies, and trying to develop a mythic glorious history of Turkey, which only he could bring back. His talks and his actions are to convey the message that he wants a prosperous Turkey with happy and cheerful families and the so-called national threats labeled as secular elites— are trying to stop him. In layman terms, he is trying to portray himself as a messiah of the Islamic world by claiming that he is the one who would bring back the good old days.
The Reopening of the Mosque for Prayers:
On the 24th of July, 2020, people gathered around the mosque and the whole premise was packed with thousands of worshipers. Mr. Erdogan arrived around 12 in the noon and settled on the mosque’s floor. At 1 p.m. everyone bowed their heads in unison as the mosque was opened for the first time for Islamic worshipers in almost nine decades. The whole prayer ceremony was telecasted on live television. “The whole ceremony was like a grand festival”, the locals commented.
The Future of Hagia Sophia:
Hagia Sophia is one of the most admired World Heritage sites and converting it into a mosque would require UNESCO’s permission, though the Turkish government is rigidly defending its decision. It would be gripping to see what comes next for the marvelous Hagia Sophia.
By: Abhishek Kumar