To the world, the Hagia Sophia museum is a hologram monument that belongs to all and means different things to different people depending on their perspective.
For nationalist Turks, Hagia Sophia is a trophy, a piece of real estate to do with as they please in the belief that ownership of the symbol of Christianity is now their sovereign right. And adding salt to Greek wounds, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says prayers today will mean the fulfilment of his boyhood dream of “freeing Hagia Sophia from slavery”.
But for the Greeks of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia’s desecration is the epitome of slavery. For them, the cathedral symbolises pain and loss, and its operation as a mosque from today onward is yet another reminder of Turkey’s human rights violations at their expense. They have seen their property confiscated, their assets overtaxed with jizya (cizye) levy imposed on non-muslims and any authority given to them via treaties ignored, so President Erdogan’s promises for the protection of heirlooms of Christianity ring empty – especially bearing in mind that many are already damaged from the last time the monument was used as a mosque.
Today’s prayer session, being held on the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne which lead to a Greek-Turkish population exchange and defined the neighbouring countries’ borders, is another example of Turkey committing international violations by using a symbolic monument and holding prayers on a symbolic date. But this time the move runs deeper than insulting the rights of a shrunken minority or placing another thorn in Greek-Turkish relations.
Turkey hopes to achieve something more significant by establishing itself as a leader in the Muslim world and gaining the respect of countries that follow Islam. President is trying to reimagine the Turks as the leaders of Islam. What better way to do this than by thumbing its nose to the European Union, the United States, the United Nations and even the Pontiff, who held a few moments of silence for Hagia Sophia?
Converting the museum into a mosque breaks the relevant UNESCO conventions for World Heritage Sites and also clashes with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). As such, international bodies like the UN and EU have a duty to ensure that the architectural masterpiece remains open for the world to enjoy and learn from which can only happen in its state as a museum. The decision to cover the Christian mosaics with lights and other “special light mapping technologies” to hide the original design in order to make Hagia Sophia “fit” for Islamic prayer falls short of guaranteeing the safety of the treasures of Orthodoxy within the site or allowing for them to be showcased.
To cover the artwork with light would mean that the experience of visiting one of the greatest architectural achievements known to mankind would be compromised. The experience of visiting the museum as a mosque would be different as the light would cover the majesty of the mosaics, the turquoise carpet laid for prayer would muffle the acoustics and the visitors would be unable to truly appreciate the dome and magnificence, which deserves to be freely shared with the world. And allowing Gli, the Hagia Sophia cat to stay, would simply not make up for everything else.
Without the brilliance of its murals and mosaics, the most-visited monument of Turkey would lose much of its tourism value. Furthermore, Hagia Sophia is no longer under the aegis of Turkey’s Ministry for Culture and Tourism, chartered until now to preserve the monument, but under the jurisdiction of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs. As such, the gift to Western Civilisation with its miracles of architecture, engineering, painting and mosaic art, design, lighting and acoustics are in danger of being devalued as cultural heirlooms as the building becomes a structure to house prayer gatherings.
Not all Muslims agree
A number of Muslim stakeholders and academics have been critical of the Islamization of the monument, stating that it encroaches upon the fundamental principles of Islam. Dr Sayyid Syeed, President of the Board of Directors of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), a group with 300 affiliates across the United States and Canada, has joined his voice with those of Catholics and Orthodox in America calling on Turkish President Erdogan to reconsider the move on Hagia Sophia.
He says, “the desecration of a place of worship of Christians, Jews and other faiths is strongly prohibited in Islam. The Quran 40:22 clearly states that it is against Allah’s plan to demolish places of worship and convert them into something else.”
Dozens of academics, mainly Turks, from universities around the world penned an open letter urging for Hagia Sophia to remain a museum. “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,” they wrote.
As academics, they also worry about what the future holds for the more Westernised factions of Turkish society.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, converted Hagia Sophia into a museum as part of a drive to make Turkey a more secular state. For years now, President Erdogan has worked hard to undo Ataturk’s vision. He has criticised treaties signed at the time, such as the Treaty of Lausanne (24 July, 1923), he has halted the teaching of the theory of evolution in schools and has even been suspected of aiding Sunni Jihadist groups in Syria.
There are worries that the conversion may be sending out a signal to fundamentalist Muslim groups as muscular Islam moves from Anatolia to Istanbul. During his public address to announce the conversion on 10 July, President Erdogan repeatedly saluted Sultan Muhammad, also known as al-Fatih (the Conqueror), for pillaging and destroying Christian Constantinople in 1453 on whose blood Islamic Istanbul was built.
He began his address by quoting a Turkish poet:
Hagia Sophia, O magnificent temple, do not worry: the grandchildren of Muhammad al-Fatih will overthrow all the [Christian] idols and convert you into a mosque; they will perform their ablutions with tears and prostrate; tahlils [recitations of the Islamic credo] and takbirs [cries of “Allahu akbar”] will replenish your empty domes … Your minaret balconies will light up in honor of Allah and his Prophet Muhammad. The whole world will think that Muhammad al-Fatih has resurrected. This will be Hagia Sophia; this will be a second conquest, a new resurrection.
Bearing in mind that President Erdogan glorifies Muhammed the Conqueror for his subjugation of ‘infidels’ there is reason for concern. President Erdogan said “the conquest of Istanbul and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque are among the most glorious chapters of Turkish history. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia represents our memory full of heydays in our history, from Badr to Manzikert, from Nicolopolis to Gallipoli, all jihadi victories…”
President Erdogan acts like Hagia Sophia has returned to Islam but ignores the fact that it has no significance in Islam. The Ottoman conqurers who turned the Cathedral into a mosque merely wanted to give a show of power to the conquered, but did not even bother to Islamise the Christian name of the cathedral which was one of the five pillars of Christianity, along with Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Rome.
And President Erdogan’s game of smoke and mirrors with the icons at Hagia Sophia and self-righteous talk of reclaiming a building of importance to Islam is much like his politics – a show.
Well may he tell foreign diplomats that he’ll respect the Christian history and vision which created the building, but President Erdogan’s speech told a different tale when he announced the opening of Hagia Sophia by expressing admiration for a sultan who embraced jihadi ideology.
This may indeed be a taste of things to come.
A new day dawns for Hagia Sophia. Tourists will now leave their shoes outside, women will wear hijabs to enter, and a different experience will be offered as acoustics are muffled by Islamic prayers and mosaics are washed in light. More importantly, however, Turkey’s foreign policy is further sealed as President Erdogan sends out a strong out multi-faceted sociopolitical statement to the world and comes another step closer to doing away with Kemalist legacies.