ISTANBUL—As Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks for an issue to fire up his Islamic and nationalist voter base amid declining poll numbers, he is moving closer to turning Istanbul’s ancient Basilica of the Hagia Sophia, a world heritage site and a powerful symbol for both Christians and Muslims, from a museum into a mosque.
Built 1,500 years ago as the main church of the Byzantine Empire, Hagia Sophia (which means holy wisdom) was the most important house of worship in Christianity for almost a thousand years. The Ottomans declared the building a mosque after conquering Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, in 1453.
But modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, decreed in a 1934 cabinet decision that the massive building in the heart of Istanbul’s historic center be used as a museum, banning religious worship there. The U.N. cultural organization UNESCO declared Hagia Sophia a world heritage site in 1985.
Islamists have campaigned for years to turn Hagia Sophia, or Ayasofya, back into a mosque, and they are now closer than ever to getting what they want. Once dismissive of their demands, but always conscious of his core Islamist base, Erdogan has signaled his support for the initiative. He told a television interviewer last year that Hagia Sophia might be known as “Hagia Sophia Mosque” in the future. Erdogan’s justice minister, Abdulhamit Gul, told the state news agency Anadolu last month that “it is our joint wish to break the Hagia Sophia’s chains and open it for prayers.”
Turkey’s top administrative court, the Council of State, on Thursday took up the issue after an association calling for the change asked the judges to declare Ataturk’s decision null and void. The hearing lasted just 17 minutes, and the court said it would issue a verdict within 15 days.
Turkish media reports say the court is expected to reject the demand to annul Ataturk’s decree but stress that the government has the right to decide about the status of a building like Hagia Sophia. Such a decision would pave the way for Erdogan to go ahead. Some reports say the president is aiming to hold the first Muslim prayer there on July 15, the anniversary of the 2016 coup attempt against his rule.
Not everybody in Turkey is happy with this turn of events. Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said Erdogan is using religious issues for political ends. The Istanbul-based spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide also criticized the plan. Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, said turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque would turn Christians against Muslims.
“Solomon, I have surpassed you.”
— Byzantine Emperor Justinian I
Since its construction in the sixth century, Hagia Sophia has awed everyone who enters the huge building. “Solomon, I have surpassed you,” Byzantine Emperor Justinian I said when he walked into Hagia Sophia for the first time after having it built. Mosaics depicting Jesus, Mary, emperors and saints glitter in the sunlight that filtered in through the windows. The main attraction remains the giant cupola that rises 56 meters (184 feet) above ground and spans 31 meters (102 feet), appearing to float in the air thanks to 90 windows in its base.
Some mosaics were painted over after the Ottoman conquest because Islam prohibits the depiction of human features, but the depredations often were overstated by Christian hostile to Sublime Port.
The aristocratic 18th century writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of Britain’s ambassador to Constantinople, cajoled her way into Hagia Sophia in 1718, noting that the mosaics of many saints were still visible, their dilapidation merely a factor of neglect. “It is absolutely false, what is so universally asserted, that the Turks defaced all the images that they found in the city.” But the vast mosaics on the ceiling were crumbling and falling to the floor. “The composition seems to me a sort of glass, or the paste with which they make counterfeit jewels,” she wrote.
In many places the gem-like brilliance of the mosaics remains or has been restored. Work in 2010 uncovered the face of a seraph angel that had been hidden under plaster, and more recent archeology has turned up significant finds, including a disk where the Emperor Justinian once stood. But some of the most striking features are the enormous medallions of Arabic calligraphy put high on the walls in the 19th century which give the sense in the museum of today that Islam and Christianity can share the space. At the apse the glistening mosaic of the Madonna and Child is flanked by the medallions of Muhammad and Allah.
The Orthodox patriarch noted that the basilica, the “Temple of the God of Wisdom,” as he called it, “has been a place for the worship of God for 900 years for Christians and 500 years for Muslims” and “makes believers of both religions meet and admire its greatness.”
But the venerable building has become a pawn in the mean game of Turkish politics. Polls show Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is losing support because of ongoing economic problems, which are made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a perception of growing corruption. The AKP lost control of major cities like Istanbul and the capital Ankara in local elections last year. Turkey’s opposition parties speculate the president may call early elections before things get even worse for him.
Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at Saint Lawrence University in New York, said it was not sure whether Erdogan would really go ahead with changing Hagia Sophia’s status.
“It remains to be seen whether he will take the plunge,” Eissenstat told The Daily Beast by email. “Promising to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque is a perennial event in Turkey. It is easy enough to move forward, make some headlines, and then back down.”
But Eissenstat added that two developments mean chances are higher now than at other times when the issue has come up.
“U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged Turkey ‘to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum.’”
“First, the twin crises of the coronavirus and the economy have further undermined the AKP’s popularity,” he said. “A big, culturally significant act like this would both highlight the AKP’s cultural brand and elicit angry responses abroad… which in turn allow Erdogan to ‘stand tall’ against foreign pressures. This type of cultural politics is a preferred strategy of Erdogan and one which he has gone back to again and again.”
“The second reason is that the economic fallout is likely to be slight… the Turkish tourism economy is already in shambles because of coronavirus. If some countries call for a boycott, it isn’t going to do any further damage because tourists already are staying away. In the interim, Turkey would likely take steps to ensure that tourists could still view Hagia Sophia outside of prayer hours.”
Having tourists in working mosques would not be new for Istanbul. The 17th century Blue Mosque, just a couple of hundred feet away from Hagia Sophia, is open for visitors except for prayer times. Women are asked to cover their hair when entering the building. There is no question of Christian prayers in other mosques, however, and there might well be in Hagia Sophia.
But even if Hagia Sophia is kept open after turning it into a mosque, the move is still likely to trigger international criticism. Turkey’s neighbor Greece, which regards Hagia Sophia as a symbol of the Byzantine past and Orthodox Christianity, has strongly criticized the plan to turn the building into a mosque.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged Turkey “to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect Turkey’s diverse faith traditions and history, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.” Turkey rejected Pompeo’s statement, reminding the secretary that “Hagia Sophia is the property of Turkey, like all our cultural assets located on our land.”
Eissenstat said that for all the controversy around Hagia Sophia, domestic and international repercussions of changing the building’s status were likely to be limited.
“Turkey reminded Pompeo that ‘Hagia Sophia is the property of Turkey, like all our cultural assets located on our land.’”
“This is a nice piece of symbolism for Erdogan’s base, but its domestic importance can be grossly overstated,” Eissenstat said. “It isn’t like the AKP will gain or lose a tremendous amount of votes either way.”
“On the diplomatic front, it will likely reinforce concerns about Turkey’s direction for some Western countries and will likely result in some angry statements and headlines,” he added. But, provided Turkey preserves the Hagia Sophia’s treasures, “I think its overall effect will be minor and relatively short lived.”
Omer Lacin, a Turkish tourist from the southern city of Antalya who visited Hagia Sophia this week in the middle of the debate swirling around the building, said the better part of wisdom would be to leave the museum alone.
“It’s not good that this issue has been put on the political agenda,” Lacin said. “I think it’s better not to touch history.”