Global Affairs

The 1500-year-old search for identity: how the Hagia Sophia became a mosque

Last Friday, the Hagia Sophia’s 86-year-old stint as a museum came to a fateful end as the 1500-year-old architectural masterpiece was reopened to the public as a mosque. I made the journey across the Bosphorus to witness this historic day.

I visited the Hagia Sophia for the first time when I was just seven years old. I can still vaguely remember looking up into the dome and marvelling at the sheer beauty of the golden mosaics and the Islamic art that mingled along the walls and the arches. Indeed, the juxtaposition of the Orthodox iconography and the Arabic calligraphy has been celebrated by many as a symbol of harmony and peaceful coexistence. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople claimed that the Hagia Sophia “represented a symbolic place of encounter, dialogue, solidarity and mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam” and added that it “belongs not only to those who own it at the moment but to all humanity”. This sentiment, however, is not shared by the many Islamists who continue to see this juxtaposition not as a symbol of peaceful coexistence but rather as a physical reminder of Turkey’s forced secularism and a gross display of forced cohabitation. Consequently, the end of this cohabitation was met with jubilation and excitement in some quarters. As thousands of worshippers gathered from all across Turkey to witness the reconversion, I decided to interview some of them.

“A lot of our Christian and Jewish brothers are hurt today, I couldn’t care less,” says Mr Çetin, a retiree who had travelled more than 400 km to witness the reconversion. “We have been reunited with our long-lost love. It was a belated reunion. We are very happy that the Hagia Sophia is being restored to its original purpose.”

The first Friday prayers marked the beginning of this “belated reunion” as this highly choreographed event made its way into almost every Turkish household, as every television news channel aired the Friday prayers live. Television cameras panned between shots of a pious Erdogan, kneeling and thoughtful in prayer, and the 350,000 worshippers, who had completely packed the vicinity of the Hagia Sophia in disregard of all social distancing rules. The Conquest Verses from the Holy Quran were read out triumphantly from the minarets, and soon after, the Minister of Religious Affairs ascended the minbar (pulpit) to deliver the khutbah (the sermon), donning a sword with three crescents, symbolizing the three continents that had been conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The message that the government was trying to make could not be clearer: this is not just a re-opening.

This is a reconquest. 

“Mehmed II, the conqueror of this city, made this place a mosque. In this regard, we must preserve the Hagia Sophia as a mosque,” says Mr Abdulsemid, a 20-year-old history student. “Converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is our sovereign right because the Hagia Sophia is our right of conquest. ”

Indeed, the Hagia Sophia boasts an extraordinarily rich and turbulent history, surviving multiple conquests, earthquakes, and fires, as it served the faithful of multiple religions over fifteen hundred years. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian built this magnificent structure as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral in 537, and it continued to assume this position for just under a thousand years until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 when it was promptly converted into a mosque. Following the foundation of the secular Turkish republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, mandated that the mosque be converted into a museum. This decision had angered the country’s sizable constituency of religious conservatives. Decades of pressure by Islamist groups, the core of President Erdogan’s constituency, culminated in a ruling by the Turkish High Court to annul Ataturk’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a museum. On the same day of the ruling, President Erdogan signed a presidential decree, officially ordering for the Hagia Sophia to be reconverted into a mosque.

Although the conversion of the Hagia Sophia had long been seen as an outlandish idea, as it would be in direct opposition with the wishes of Ataturk, Mr Erdogan’s push to reconvert the Hagia Sophia has energized his core base and has brought this issue to the forefront of national discourse. Nonetheless, Mr Erdogan’s pushes were met with swift international condemnation by the likes of UNESCO, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Greek Government, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Pope Francis, who said he was “deeply saddened” by this move. Mr Erdogan responded by denouncing all who opposed this reconversion as “foreign powers” and that this was a matter of “Turkish sovereignty”. Many of Erdogan’s domestic critics see this move as an obvious distraction from the economic havoc wrought upon Turkey by the novel coronavirus and Erdogan’s recent troubles in domestic politics. Others, like Orhan Pamuk, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, have lamented the fact that Turkey is turning its back on laïcité and heading in a fundamentalist Islamist direction. Mr Pamuk told the BBC that “The Turkish nation is very proud to be the only secular Muslim nation, and this was the biggest sign of it.” He added that “there are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this, but their voices are not heard.”  

As I walked into the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, the electrified crowd around me lowered their masks and erupted into spontaneous chants of “Allahu Akbar”. We quickly made our way through the ground floor of the newly inaugurated mosque, whose marble floors had been covered in a teal carpet, yet another sign of the reconquest of this building. As I took off my shoes and looked up into the dome, I noticed that all of the mosaics had been covered with a white curtain—they no longer mingled with the beautiful Arabic calligraphy. At this very moment, I couldn’t help but wonder if Erdogan’s new Turkey, which had slowly turned its back on the great Turkish traditions of tolerance and coexistence, had any room for religious, racial, and ethnic minorities such as myself.