Author: Natig NAZIMOGHLU
President of Turkey Recep T. Erdogan annulled the 1934 decision on granting the Hagia Sophia a status of a museum. In other words, Hagia Sophia became a mosque again, as it has been for almost five centuries in the Ottoman Empire.
Hagia Sophia is one of the greatest symbols of religious architecture. The building was constructed in 532-537 according to the decree of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in Constantinople as the cathedral of Hagia Sophia (from the Koine Greek ‘σοφία’ meaning wisdom), or the Church of Holy Wisdom. It became a symbol of the greatness of the Byzantine Empire. It has been the crowning place of Byzantine emperors for centuries and the headquarters of the Patriarch of Constantinople. After the split of the Christian Church into Catholicism and Orthodoxy in 1054, St. Sophia became the main temple for the entire Eastern or Orthodox Christianity.
The historical turn in the fate of St. Sophia took place after the conquest of Constantinople on May 29, 1453 by the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, who entered the Hagia Sophia and proclaimed it a mosque.
Sources claim that Mehmet entered the city a few hours after the noon accompanied by his ministers and an escort of selected Janissaries. Just before entering the temple, he got off his horse, bent down, picked up a handful of soil and sprinkled it upon his turban as a sign of humility before Allah. Then he entered the temple and spent a few moments in silence, after which he went to the altar. On his way, he angrily forbade an Ottoman soldier to tear off a piece of the mosaic floor and ordered the release of several Greeks who were in the temple, including priests. Then, at the behest of the sultan, one of the religious scholars from his escort mounted a pulpit and proclaimed that there is no god but Allah.
That was a short story of the temple, which from that day on would be known as the Hagia Sophia Mosque and become one of the symbols of the Ottoman Empire and one of the greatest shrines of the entire Islamic world. Later the Ottoman architects added four minarets to the building, as well as a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, and a marble minbar (pulpit in the mosque). Most of the frescoes and mosaics were covered with plaster, thanks to which they remained unharmed after several centuries and have survived to this day.
A new page in the history of the famous temple opened during the period of Republican Turkey. Its founder and first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, signed a government decree in 1935 to establish the Hagia Sophia Museum, which put an end to the previous status of the temple as a mosque. Initially, the newly-established museum was passed under the charge of the Ministry of Education, followed by the Ministry of Culture. This step was part of the secularisation policy pursued by Atatürk, who believed that "the Turkish Republic should not be a country of sheikhs and dervishes."
The proclamation of Turkey as a secular state, the liquidation of the institution of the Caliphate, the abolition of Shariah law, the introduction of secular education, the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a museum, etc. were figuratively various links of a single chain that together made up a new panorama of a country that has embarked on the path of pro-European development. However, there was perhaps another reason why the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum, which was clearly formulated by the then Minister of Education of Turkey Abidin Ozmen: "If Hagia Sophia becomes a museum, the tourist flow to Istanbul will double."
The issue of restoring Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque was raised again in 2002, when the moderately Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey. The first serious signal was the mass morning prayer performed by the Anatolian Youth Association on May 31, 2014 in front of the Hagia Sophia gate under the motto "Break the chains, open Hagia Sophia." In 2016, during the month of Ramadan, Quran readings were held in Hagia Sophia. In March 2019, President Erdogan for the first time openly admitted the possibility of restoring the status of Hagia Sophia as a mosque. On May 29, 2020, on the 567th anniversary of the capture of Istanbul, the reading of Quranic suras began in Hagia Sophia again. Soon after, Mr. Erdogan instructed his assistants to study the issue of changing the status of the museum, and at a meeting with representatives of his party, he expressed the hope that "with God's help, we will pray in the Hagia Sophia mosque."
On July 2, Turkey's Supreme Administrative Court - the State Council reviewed, at the initiative of President Erdogan, the issue of changing the status of Hagia Sophia. The final decision of the State Council published on July 10 stated that a presidential decree was sufficient to change the status of Hagia Sophia. On the same day, President Erdogan issued a decree giving the museum the status of a mosque and passing it under the control of the Office of Religious Affairs. So, Hagia Sophia regained the status of one of the shrines of Islam.
The reaction of the world community
Before and after Erdogan's decree on changing the status of Hagia Sophia, the traditional centres of the Christian world, including Europe, Russia, and the US, have made statements of various tonal degrees ranging from highly condemnatory to invocatory. But in essence, they boiled down to the criticism of Ankara’s decision. It was especially emphasised that in 1985, the Hagia Sophia Museum, along with other monuments located in the historical part of Istanbul, was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The US State Department announced Washington's disappointment over the Turkish government's decision to change the status of Hagia Sophia. At the same time, it was noted that the US "eagerly" expects to know how Turkey plans to fulfil its obligations to preserve access to the temple for all visitors.
The EU expressed a similar regret. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian made a separate statement, which says that Ankara's decision endangers "one of the most symbolic acts of modern and secular Turkey."
Perhaps the most dramatic reaction came from Greece, Turkey's traditional rival, despite the allied relations of both countries within NATO. The leading political forces of Greece unanimously condemned Ankara’s decision and even threatened Ankara with the introduction of sanctions, closing the country's borders for the transit of Turkish goods and services. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed confidence that Turkey's decision will affect its relations not only with Greece, but also with the EU, UNESCO and the world community as a whole.
Both before the decision to change the status of the cathedral, and immediately after the publication of Erdogan's decree, Russia at almost all levels, including the government, public, Russian Orthodox Church, expressed its discontent with the position of the Turkish leadership. According to Patriarch Kirill, “a threat to Hagia Sophia is a threat to the entire Christian civilisation, and therefore to our spirituality and history. That is why what may happen to Saint Sophia will resound with deep pain in the Russian people."
The Muslim community of Russia puts forward a slightly different view of the situation. The chairman of the Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of Russia, Mufti Albir Krganov, recalled the words of the Prophet Muhammad, who said that Islam sees the whole Earth as a mosque for believers, and urged "not to over-politicise the topic." Press secretary of the Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Russia Ravil-Haji Seyfetdinov said that “the issue of regulation of one's historical heritage is an internal affair of any sovereign state. Any pressure on such issues is inappropriate and can aggravate the situation."
The decision to strip of Hagia Sophia’s museum status found support in many Muslim countries. Media outlets and public organisations of a number of Arab countries hailed Ankara's decision as "historic”.
In response to critics of the decision, the Turkish leadership made it clear that Hagia Sophia will continue to be protected as an outstanding cultural monument. Meanwhile, the supporters of Ankara's decision wonder about the judges...
Do the countries of Western Europe have a moral right to condemn Turkey, if we recall that after the conquest and unprecedented plunder of Constantinople by the crusaders at the beginning of the 13th century, in 1204, the Orthodox Cathedral of Hagia Sophia was used as a Roman Catholic Church up until 1261? Why does not the EU condemn say Spain for ‘Christianising’ the country's great Muslim heritage?
Does the US have the right to call Turkey for compliance with "historical law", if the United States itself unilaterally, in violation of international law, recognised Jerusalem, the holy city of three religions, as the capital of Israel? Apparently, it was this decision of the American administration that prompted the Turkish authorities to the idea of returning the Hagia Sophia the quality it had possessed throughout the centuries of the Ottoman rule.
The issue of national sovereignty
In terms of political context, it seems the issue of the status of the Hagia Sophia has that kind of significance that urge Turkey to protect its national sovereignty.
Certainly, there is a deep internal political context in the ongoing process, as the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) has been engaged in the ‘creeping revision’ of Atatürk's legacy for many years. Quite a reasonable question, therefore, is whether Turkey remains as much a secular state as Atatürk left it by 2023, that is - the centenary of the foundation of the republic. Is the recent decision regarding Hagia Sophia a symbolic act intended to show that the current Turkish government led by President Erdogan sees itself not as the successor of Atatürk and his deeds but of the sovereign traditions of the Ottomans?
However, the main thing is that in the new and swiftly changing globalised world, Turkey, which was rejected by the West as a full-fledged ally with no chance to become part of the EU, finds salvation in increasing the awareness of its self-sufficiency as a state, as well as its historical and cultural heritage. In this sense, the entire flow of events before the adoption of such a historical decision on the status of Hagia Sophia and the current global situation only prove the legitimacy of reasoning behind Ankara’s decision. Critical voices only strengthened Erdogan's opinion about the need to change the status of Hagia Sophia, which for Turkey means a question of asserting its civilisational identity.
It is no accident that Erdogan called the changing of the status of Hagia Sophia as "a step towards a greater Turkey”. At the same time, he made it clear that Turkey was not interested in the opinion of other countries on this matter, as his decision to change the status of Hagia Sophia was based "on the will of the Turkish people."
As for concerns about the future appearance of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan said: "We will make sure that Muslims and the representatives of other religions come and see the best example of how we preserve the heritage of our ancestors."
Given the discontent expressed by Western countries and Russia, can Turkey expect any negative consequences on the international arena? Perhaps the answer would be ‘no’.
For example, Greece's call to punish Turkey economically is ungrounded, as even the world's influential critics of the restoration of Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque are objectively not interested in economical sanctions against Turkey. Even more difficult is to imagine a military conflict between Greece and Turkey, whose defense potential is many times superior than that of his opponent. On top of that, there is no reason to heat up the already strained relations between Turkey and its allies in NATO, including the United States.
Russia's reasonable reaction to Erdogan's historic decision was of particular interest. Given the high level of strategic partnership between Moscow and Ankara, as well as the Kremlin's restrained reaction to the decision, it is highly unlikely that there is a serious discord or even a conflict between the two countries - key geopolitical actors on the Eurasian continent.
Thus, the issue of the status of Hagia Sophia will clearly not push Turkey to the periphery of global politics. After all, it would not have become a subject of discussion if Atatürk had not decided to turn the largest Turkish mosque into a museum – a decision, which has no counterpart in the history of any traditionally Christian countries and proves deep religious tolerance of the Turkish people. This was also confirmed by the assurances of the Turkish leadership, which stated that the gates of Hagia Sophia, like all other mosques in the country, will always be open to all people, regardless of their citizenship, religion and nationality.