A Beautiful Place for God
From being the main church of the city of Constantinople to becoming the main mosque of Istanbul and attaining the status of a secular centre of awe and splendour, Hagia Sophia (HS) has managed to encapsulate the faith and imagination of many. The monument, an architectural marvel and a Turkish jewel, is situated at the crossroads of not only continents but also cultures. It has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, along with the changes in its utility as per the whims of the ruling regimes. With the recent decision of the Council of States, the highest administrative body of Turkey, headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to reconvert it into a place of worship -for the Muslim citizens of the country- questions have arisen regarding the repercussions of the move and, more importantly, the reasons behind it.
Present-day Istanbul was once known as Constantinople and was a part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Constantinople came into existence after a series of conquests and re-conquests, by the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans, of the fortified city on the coasts of Turkey. The name of the city, therefore, changed from conquest to conquest- from Byzantium to Augusta Antonia to New Rome to Constantinople- as per the preferences of the incumbents. One tangle thing that survived through all these raids and frequent plunders was the structure that we today know as HS. Although in technical terms it did not. The first great church of the city of Constantinople, built in the spot were HS stands today, was the 4th century Megálē Ekklēsíā or Magna Ecclesia, and was burnt down in riots. The site of the burnt church demarcated the spot for the construction of Turkey’s most important religious centre for centuries to come. The second Church was destroyed in the Nika riots of 532, during which the emperor nearly escaped being dethroned by the agitated crowds. The same emperor, Justinian I, was responsible for the construction of HS on a scale as massive as it is currently. Foundation wall stones from Egypt and Syria, columns from the Temple of Artemis, Corinthian Columns from Lebanon, and a Grand dome (15 metres high and 30 metres in Diameter) symbolising the heavens were some of the efforts put in place to make it one of the most remarkable buildings of its time.[i]
The weakening of the erstwhile capital city of Constantinople, as a result of the Fourth Crusade, made it an easy target for the ambitious Turks who eventually conquered it and renamed it as Istanbul. The 6th century Byzantine church, which also served as a Catholic church during the 13th century, was turned into a mosque by Sultan Mehmed II, also known as “The Conqueror”, in 1453. The structure, thus, came to be widely recognised as a symbol of Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.
The responsibility of converting the former church into a functional place for Koranic prayers was given to Mimar Sinan, an architect of Armenian origin. Starting from 1566, Sinan spent, approximately, eight years on strengthening the existing structure and adding minarets –for call for prayer. Thereafter, more such minarets were erected by succeeding sultans from time to time. Apart from the minarets, the other obvious signs of Ottoman adornments included ornate candle holders from Hungary and massive calligraphic discs representing the four subsequent Caliphs. Over time the structure secured its present grandeur and status of a monument having the essence of two different faiths- Christianity and Sunni Islam.
Hagia Sophia is arguably the most famous, yet not the only building with the history of having catered to the demands of two or more religions. Conquerors have more than often appropriated the most prominent structures of faith, in their newly engulfed territories, either to justify all the pain and effort or to, simply, make their victories felt by their new subjects. In fact, some readers might find it interesting to know that history provides more examples of the conversion of mosques into churches than the other way round: i) the Great Mosque of Córdoba converted into Cathedral of Córdoba or Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption[ii], by King Ferdinand III of Castile, ii) the main Mosque of Zaragoza into a cathedral, by King Alfonso I, the Battler, iii) The Mosque of Cristo de la Luz or The Mosque of Toledo into a gothic cathedral, by King Alfonso VI (completely by Alfonso VIII who presented the building to the Knights of orders of St John)[iii] and iv) the Great Mosque of the city of Palma into Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca, by King Jaume I[iv] are some of the notable examples.
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the establishment of the first stable government, led by the Mustafa Kemal, titled Ataturk or “The Father of the Turks”, Turkey underwent a period of extensive modernisation, democratisation and secularisation. The change in utility of HS from a place of worship to a place of appreciation of the craftsmanship of the hands involved in propping up the structure was a part of the greater, aforementioned, secularisation drive. The constitutional amendment of 1928, which defined or rather redefined the religion-state relationship, had the pioneering seeds for the ultimate metamorphosis.
In 1931, HS closed to worship. It was then renovated into a museum over a span of 3 years and finally opened to public as a heritage museum in 1934 and became a worldwide symbol of the modern Turkey’s secularisation.[v] The renovation that allowed for the removal of carpets and plaster coverings, exposing the marble adornments and Christian mosaics, made the juxtaposition of faiths more vivid and visible. Taking cogence of the move, UNESCO, after 50 years of this modification, placed HS on the prestigious list of World Heritage Sites.[vi]
The building which was, until recently, celebrated as a global asset, manifestation of Turkey’s rich history and a massive tourist attraction has also been a bone of contention between the Christian Orthodoxy and Sunni Islam. Both the factions wanted the reconversion of HS into a place of worship, for their respective religious, and were opposed to the aggressive secularisation, spearheaded by Ataturk, from the beginning. These voices started holding ground and attention from the beginning of the 21st century. For example, in 2007, Christos Spirou, a Greek-American political leader, started a worldwide campaign demanding the resumption of Christian prayers in HS and the restoration of its status as a Church. Another instance involved the conversion of one of rooms within museum complex into a prayer room for the Christian and Muslims employees of the museum, in 2006.[vii]
With the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a leader with a voter-base in those having nationalist-Islamist sympathies, the status of HS became contentious again. It was no longer the confluence of cultures and religions but a symbol of Ottomans’ (Islamic) victory over a Christian state – a victory that lead to further territorial expansion and the establishment of a dominant empire spanning over centuries. Like many of his international contemporaries, Erdoğan is just as well versed with the art of going back to History in the pursuit of glory. The conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans completed 567 years recently, and to mark the occasion the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Erdoğan, allowed an Imam to recite the Koranic suras in HS. The act, as we all now know, was soon followed by the passage of legislations, enabling the resumption of Koranic prayers and the formal reconversion of the museum into a mosque.
Lately, the AKP has faced some major setbacks and registered some significant electoral loses and, as per analysts, the conversion can be seen as a desperate attempt to reclaim the voter-base by clinging to long lost era.[viii] Others propose that the move can also be a result of the frustration of Turkey’s political ambitions within Europe. For example, Turkey has been kept out of the European Union, despite decades of efforts. With the reclamation of HS, it probably aims to play a leading role in the eastern Islamic world.[ix]
As the author writes this article, the status of HS has already been changed from a museum to a mosque. The icons of Virgin Mary and Christ have been covered with fabric; carpets have been rolled open over the marble floor and the 1934 decree stands annulled with the country’s top administrative court handing down the decision to revoke HS’s museum status. The structure is now, once again, a mosque, and shall probably remain this way for many more years to come, perhaps forever. So the question that needs to be answered now is whether it was in Turkey’s best interest to take a step as massive as this?
In a recent article published in Places, Ziad Jamaleddine, assistant professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, states, “Erdoğan surely understands the controversy he is courting; he probably understands as well the complexity of the history that is at stake. Note the difference in tone and language between his English and non-English announcements. The non-English version, written not in Turkish but Arabic, sounds like a victory lap. It references the historical geographic expanse of the Islamic empire “from Bukhara to Andalusia,” and describes the reconversion as retaliation for the persecution of Muslims around the world. In contrast, the English version is moderate and tempered; it deploys Western tropes to invoke the “independence” and “sovereign rights” of the nation-state as the legal grounds for the decision.”
Turkey is aware of the controversy it has created, along with everything it stands to desecrate in the gamble. The move, allegedly, aimed at scoring political points on the domestic playground, has set the alarm bells ringing on an international level- endangering Turkey’s relations with a number of Christian majority states, from Russia to the US.
British journalist and author Carlotta Gall, while writing for The New York Times, states, “The very idea of changing the monument’s status has escalated tensions with Turkey’s long-time rival, Greece; upset Christians around the world; and set off a chorus of dismay from political and religious leaders as diverse as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
“Mr. Erdogan’s opponents say he has raised the issue of restoring Hagia Sophia as a mosque every time he has faced a political crisis, using it to stir supporters in his nationalist and conservative religious base,” she adds.[x]
Turkey, along with 189 other members states of the United Nations, is a ratified party to the United Nations Convention on Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage, 1972. Article 4 of the said convention directs the states to “recognizes that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the cultural and natural heritage referred to in Articles 1 and 2 and situated on its territory, belongs primarily to that State.” Article 5, of the same, puts the obligation on the party states to “ensure that effective and active measures are taken for the protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated on its territory”.[xi]
UNESCO in its official statement, dated 10th June, on the reconversion of HS into structure of Islamic faith condemned the move in the following words, “This decision announced today raises the issue of the impact of this change of status on the property’s universal value. States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories. UNESCO must be given prior notice of any such modifications, which, if necessary, are then examined by the World Heritage Committee.”
“...concerns were shared with the Republic of Turkey in several letters, and again yesterday evening with the representative of the Turkish Delegation to UNESCO. It is regrettable that the Turkish decision was made without any form of dialogue or prior notice,” it stated further.[xii]
In the end we can say that it is not new or out of character for those in power to showcase visible efforts in the process of trying to reclaim the pride, from the glorious past, that was hardly ever abridged. In fact, a similar trend is on the rise in the countries having religious conservatives at the helm of affairs. The issue that should probably be a cause of concern for the Turkish voters is the priorities of the ruling regime in the middle of a pandemic. With the current COVID cases at approximately 305,000[xiii], as of 22nd September 2020, shouldn’t the government be using all its energies in dealing with health crisis? Apart from that, if UNESCO actually decides to reconsider HS’s status as a World Heritage Site, would the mosque be able to attract just as many tourists every year as it does currently? And if one ponders a bit longer, another question that comes to mind is that what does Hagia Sophia, the troubled beauty, stand to gain in all this?
The last question seemed to bother a group of Byzantine and Ottoman historians as well. The group voiced its concerns in an open letter, in the following words,
“We are concerned that the ongoing dispute over function hinders the development of a management strategy commensurate to the scale of the challenges: preservation of the historical fabric and continued visibility of the works of art of all periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; responsible management of mass tourism; and protection against the threat of earthquake. … Hagia Sophia is too beautiful a monument and too precious a historical document to serve as a pawn in regional politics. Successive Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish governments have protected it against the ravages of time and thus maintained its significance not only for themselves, but also for those to come in the future — including all of us.”
In a nutshell, an option better than the reconversion or change of function of HS would have been a concentration of efforts towards its stewardship.
[i] https://youtu.be/KRPp3jzv1Tw [ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosque%E2%80%93Cathedral_of_C%C3%B3rdoba [iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mosque_of_Cristo_de_la_Luz [iv] https://castellsonclaret.com/discover-the-cathedral-of-palma-de-mallorca/ [v] https://qrius.com/what-the-conversion-of-hagia-sophia-has-meant/ [vi] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/07/hagia-sophia-stripped-museum-status-paving-way-mosque/#:~:text=It%20remained%20a%20Muslim%20house,of%20Istanbul%20World%20Heritage%20Site. [vii] https://qrius.com/what-the-conversion-of-hagia-sophia-has-meant/ [viii] https://thewire.in/politics/turkeys-hagia-sophia-mosque-erdogan [ix] https://placesjournal.org/article/hagia-sophia-past-and-future/?cn-reloaded=1 [x] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/08/world/europe/erdogan-hagia-sophia-mosque.html [xi] https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/09/kalra-deshmukh-status-hagia-sophia-as-a-mosque/ [xii] https://en.unesco.org/news/unesco-statement-hagia-sophia-istanbul [xiii]https://www.google.com/search?q=number+of+corona+cases+in+turkey&oq=Number+of+Corona+cases+in+Turkey&aqs=chrome.0.0l2.11110j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8 Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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The author is a Plant Science graduate from Hans Raj College, University of Delhi. Apart from her affinity with science, she also enjoys analysing diplomatic issues and public policy.