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Opinion | Why Erdoğan wants to turn Turkey's Hagia Sophia into a mosque

The move to turn the Hagia Sophia museum back into a mosque is the latest signal of the nation’s shift away from secularism

The decision to make the Hagia Sophia a mosque once again is entirely symbolic. Photo: AP
The decision to make the Hagia Sophia a mosque once again is entirely symbolic. Photo: AP

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia does not make the best first impression. One expects more from the pre-eminent building in one of the world’s greatest cities, even if one has read up on its history. The structure has endured earthquakes, fires, riots and invasions in its nearly 1,500 years of existence, and each exacted a price. Various parts of the edifice collapsed and had to be rebuilt and now the whole thing feels hemmed in by accretions and buttresses.

Step inside and it becomes clear what all the fuss is about. The massive interior is coherent and unified, gently illuminated by light pouring in from a ring of windows at the bottom of a high dome. That dome is flanked and supported by semi-domes which expand the central space, distinguishing the Hagia Sophia from the typical church in West Europe in which the “crossing" under the dome is spatially distinct from the arms that make up the nave, chancel and transepts.

The play of domes, semi-domes and quarter-domes was advanced considerably by Ottoman architects a thousand years after the Hagia Sophia’s consecration, as a result of which today’s Istanbul is full of magnificent buildings that echo the great Byzantine cathedral. Not only did the Turks adopt it as an architectural model for their places of worship, they converted the church itself into a mosque in 1453, soon after conquering the city then known as Constantinople. Although it was dilapidated when the Ottoman army overran the city, many of the opulent mosaics added to its walls over the centuries had remained intact. Thankfully, the sultan ordered the biblical figures plastered over rather than destroyed, while adding aspects of Islamic worship like minarets and a mihrab, or prayer niche.

The capture of Constantinople was, as our school books tell us, a turning point in history. It triggered an age of exploration by Europeans seeking a sea route to the east bypassing Ottoman lands. This meant going all the way around Africa, as Vasco da Gama did, or reaching the east by sailing west, as Christopher Columbus attempted to do.

Ottoman dominions in Europe and Asia began shrinking in the 18th century, reaching a low point after World War I, when Europeans conspired to dismember much of what is now the country of Turkey. They were foiled largely because of one man, a general named Mustafa Kemal, whose troops fought successfully on three fronts against a coalition of Greece, Armenia, France, Italy and the UK. Kemal emerged as the leader of a new Turkish republic and was later honoured with the title Atatürk, or father of the Turks. In 1935, as part of a comprehensive secularization drive, he had the Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, to use its Turkish name, converted into a museum. Long-hidden Christian mosaics were uncovered and the monument established itself as a centrepiece of Turkey’s tourism industry.

The current Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has gradually undone the foundations of the Atatürkist secular state. There are parallels to be drawn with India. It can be said that Narendra Modi is to India what Erdoğan is to Turkey. Erdoğan’s party members cannot abuse Atatürk the way the Hindu right openly reviles Jawaharlal Nehru because it is difficult to rewrite the history of the Turkish war of independence. What they can do is conflate Turkish nationalism with Islamist belief by glorifying the heyday of the Ottomans.

On 29 May, during lavish celebrations of the 567th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul, a cleric sitting within the Hagia Sophia museum recited verses from the Quran while a live feed of the Turkish president listening in was beamed on to a screen placed next to him. The cleric recited the surah al fath, meaning chapter of victory or conquest, in honour of the Ottoman sultan who captured the city, Mehmet the Conqueror (Fatih Sultan Mehmet). When Atatürk launched his effort to create a progressive republic, he could hardly have imagined that a successor would be glorifying religiously motivated war a century later.

Erdoğan has since said that making a museum of the Hagia Sophia was a mistake. His neo-Ottoman, back-to-the-future outlook involves changing it to a mosque once more. A case pleading for a shift in status is now in Turkish courts. The judges may well endorse the reconversion. Since it is unlikely that Islamic prayers will take place in the presence of images of biblical figures, we must presume the glorious mosaics will be covered up yet again. Should that happen, it is unlikely that the new Ayasofya mosque will retain Unesco’s World Heritage tag.

The Unesco honour is now so diluted that President Erdoğan will perhaps happily let it go. He will be a little more concerned about dissenting voices from within Turkey’s tiny Orthodox Christian community and from nations like Greece and Russia, where the Orthodox denomination is dominant, but must have taken those into account before making the move.

Istanbul is not short of mosques. It can manage its congregations without the addition of the Hagia Sophia. The decision to resacralize that currently secular venue is entirely symbolic, a statement that the world will attend to and understand. It is another step in Turkey’s steady shift away from what the American political scientist Samuel Huntington called a torn civilization, a strictly secular country with a population that is 99% Muslim, a nation with its body in Asia and a foothold in Europe.

Erdoğan’s Turkey no longer knocks at the door of the European Union after repeated humiliating rejections. He is shaping it as a power centre in its own right, proud of its imperial past and of its Islamic identity. In the past year, he has effectively projected Turkish military power in regions of Syria and Libya that were under Ottoman rule for centuries. One can understand why this vision attracts many Turks, just as a similar situation unfolds in India.

One way to comprehend what is wrong with both is to picture compelling icons created from thousands of tiny tiles of glass, ceramic, gold leaf and precious stones. Now, imagine them slowly disappearing as they are whitewashed. Our only hope is that they remain undamaged under the plaster.

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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