Back in 1931, a decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum, for the building to be recognised as a heritage site, would pause the quarrel over a neverending bilateral political matter.
It would not hand the historic church back to the Greek Orthodox population, but it would become a sign of Turkey’s goodwill, proof of its leadership’s respect towards cultural heritage.
The Orthodox world was not ecstatic, the idea of a museum, however, seemed far more fathomable than seeing Hagia Sophia operate as a mosque and the original artwork neglected and covered by banners.
This was also a political measure Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, took to ensure stability among Christian and Muslim populations in the region.
The western world, Greece, not to mention Russia have always dreaded current prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s highly pro-Islam authoritarian agenda.
Last year, Yalçın Topçu, Turkey’s culture and tourism minister, vowed to reopen Istanbul’s iconic temple as a mosque. “It is my personal dream, my goal, my ambition,” he had said.
The idea of the Quran being read in the 2016 Hagia Sophia, to signify the return of Islam, was rather popular across the country, but these were mere rumours.
Until they weren’t.
Since Monday there have been three recitals of the Quran in the ancient church of Hagia Sophia for the first time in 80 years, as part of a ‘conquest prayer’ event.
Sounds a bit unsettling? Maybe because it is.
A short journey through some historical and more recent events might help us understand why this goes beyond a simple act of worship.
Built between AD532 and 537 on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, Hagia Sophia was the third Christian Church of the Holy Wisdom on the site. Its massive dome, the epitome of Byzantine architecture, a symbol of faith and unison, the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople, under which Greek Orthodox Church would prosper.
Hagia Sophia (from the Greek Ἁγία Σοφία: Holy Wisdom) was in fact a Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal basilica (church) said to have “changed the history of architecture”. It was designed by the Greek geometers Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles.
From the date of its construction and until 29 May 1453, when Istanbul was conquered by the Ottomans and the church was turned into a mosque, Hagia Sophia stood as the cornerstone of the Orthodox faith.
The building functioned as a Muslim temple until 1931, when Ataturk closed it down and transformed it into a museum (Ayasofya Müzesi) on 1 February 1935.
For years there have been demands by Islamists and nationalists to reconvert the building into a mosque, but as Hagia Sophia still remains a symbol to Christian faith and especially to all of the Orthodox population, such an act would be considered provocative.
On 28 May, one day before the 563rd anniversary of Constantinople’s conquest by the Turks, hundreds of Islamists gathered at the Hagia Sophia gates demanding the right to pray there as part of an event called the ‘conquest prayer’ while an imam chanted.
On May 29, even more people, mainly young, demonstrated, yelling: “Let the chains break, open Hagia Sophia. Praise Islam.”
The ‘conquest prayer’ event in the name of which Islamist groups claimed their right to read the Quran inside the emblematic building was frowned upon by the Greek government, supporters of a secular Turkey, the EU, Russia and UNESCO alike.
Erdogan, however, staying true to his confrontational territorial policy, chose to disregard foreign affairs in an attempt to avoid further fragmentation of the Turkish state.
To please his supporters within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan eventually agreed that the world heritage site should be given back entirely to Islamic worshipers.
Samil Tayyar, a deputy for AKP, demanded the building should open for Muslim worship as a response to Ankara’s western partners’ recent actions, which the government regards as unsupportive.
“Since the United States is siding with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party], and Germany has clung to the [Armenian] genocide lie, friendship has shifted. It’s our turn – [Hagia] Sophia should be open for worship,” the Turkish MP said.
“Armenian genocide lie”, “it’s our turn”? Turkey’s turn to do what? Avenge the PKK and Europe with Quranic prayers?
The statement, backed by Erdogan, was widely liked and shared on social media by extreme Islamists across Turkey. On Monday the site was open to the public and the imam began to read the Quran.
Keeping Hagia Sophia as a museum would have been a sign of Turkey’s commitment to secularism and democracy, a sign of respect to non-Islamic populations.
The Greek Foreign Ministry released a statement on 6 June condemning Quran citings at the Hagia Sophia as “regressive”.
“Obsessions, verging on bigotry, with Muslim rituals in a monument of world cultural heritage are incomprehensible and reveal a lack of respect for and connection with reality,” the statement said, stressing that such practices “contradict the values of modern, democratic and secular societies”.
As a counterback, the first guest of the TRT program broadcasting the readings live on national TV from Hagia Sophia was Diyanet head Mehmet Görmez, an Islamic supporter expressing his “excitement”.
“This is a place that raised numerous scientists, people of letters, many important people,” Görmez enthused, adding he “wishes god’s mercy and grace upon all the ancestors who died between Istanbul’s conquest and the beginning of this century”.
Greece’s former minister of foreign affairs and former mayor of Athens, Dora Bakoyanni, said that the new Quran readings at Hagia Sophia have “virtually transformed it into a mosque” again.
The New Demoracy MP condemned Ankara’s move as “provocative” and “disrespectful against Orthodox Christians across the world and is not in line with Turkey’s European course”.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Tanju Bilgiç released a written statement on 8 June slamming Greece’s condemnation of reading the Quran throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“The Greek Foreign Ministry’s statement with regards to TRT Diyanet TV’s [the Religious Affairs Directorate’s channel on a Turkish broadcaster] sahur [the meal before dawn during Ramadan] program entitled Hagia Sophia at the time of abundance, which will be broadcast throughout the month of Ramadan, is unacceptable,” he wrote.
Bilgiç’s response accused Greeks of “mistaking anti-Islamism with contemporaneity” and asked them to “get some common sense”.
“Greece has not permitted the construction of a mosque in its capital for years,” Bilgiç argued in the unsubstantiated statement.
“Greece intervened against the religious freedoms of the Turkish minority in western Thrace. In this regard, we would like to remind [Greece] that respecting other religions and their forms of worship is among the values of contemporary, democratic and secular societies.”
Meanwhile, Greece’s Education and Religious Affairs Ministry had announced that the capital’s Peace and Friendship Stadium (SEF) in Neo Faliro and the Olympic Stadium (OAKA) in Maroussi will be made available for Muslims to celebrate Ramadan.
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has not yet issued any statements, although there has reportedly been a lot of activity between the leaders of the Orthodox Church.
The main line is that no matter how religiously offensive this may seem from a Christian’s point of view, it remains a highly premeditated act in the name of Islam.
Not only Greece opposes this move, proof that Turkey is going down a particular undemocratic path. The majority of Turkish people see this as a threat also, and fear Erdogan is pushing for an Islamic constitution for Turkey.
Erdogan has silenced most free and unbiased voices within the press long ago, taking measures against his critics. Truth is, Turkey is in a position to ignore Europe’s and NATO’s forewarnings. The state is in its most powerful position diplomatically, with the power to control refugee influx not only into Greece and Europe, but also towards the east.
If prayers are so important, perhaps all we can do is pray.