Turkey’s conversion of great Byzantine museum into mosque ‘an insult’

Image: Wikimedia Commons CClicense

By Lianne Kolirin

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, declared victory last week after a court backed his call to convert Istanbul’s awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

Having annulled the 1934 presidential decree that turned the World Heritage Site into a museum, the court gave Erdogan permission to declare that the historic monument will open its doors for Muslim prayers on 24 July.

It ruled that the country’s biggest tourist attraction, which draws in 3.7 million visitors a year, had been owned by a foundation established by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1453, and presented to the community as a mosque — a status that cannot be legally changed, according to the Anadolu news agency.

The move has attracted a barrage of criticism from around the world — not least from Pope Francis. Speaking at a service in the Vatican on Sunday, he he was “pained” and “saddened” by the decision.

The head of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches (WCC) has written to Erdogan expressing “grief and dismay” at the conversion of the site that stood at the heart of the Christian world for nearly a millennium.

The Rev Professor Dr Ioan Sauca, interim general secretary of the WCC, wrote: “I am obliged to convey to you the grief and dismay of the World Council of Churches — and of its 350 member churches in more than 110 countries, representing more than half a billion Christians around the world — at the step you have just taken.

“By deciding to convert the Hagia Sophia back to a mosque you have reversed that positive sign of Turkey’s openness and changed it to a sign of exclusion and division.”

So why has the decision by Turkey’s leader over a building on Turkish land provoked such anger and condemnation, not least from neighbouring Greece, which has threatened to impose sanctions?

Hagia Sophia, famed for its impressive architecture, mosaics and history which span East and West, Christian and Muslim, has long been regarded as an international treasure.

It was the Roman Empire’s first Christian cathedral, took six years to build and, completed in 537,  is regarded as one of world’s greatest Byzantine structures.

When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453 and renamed the city Istanbul, the Greek Orthodox cathedral was turned into a mosque. In 1934, President Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, secularised the building and a year later it became a museum.

Erdogan hails from a conservative Muslim tradition and has long pursued a policy of moving the country away from its secular roots.

Professor Esra Özyürek, who chairs contemporary Turkish studies at the London School of Economics, told the Religion Media Centre that it was no suprise that the move had sparked such an outcry, given the building’s international significance.

“This is such an important building for the Christian world in territory that belongs to Muslims,” she said.

While the issue has been debated over the years in some Islamic quarters, it has not been considered top priority, Professor Özyürek said. Unlike the city’s Blue Mosque, which has inspired countless replicas around the country, Hagia Sophia has not been central to Islamic practice, she said.

“It is not a burning issue, especially in the middle of all the international and national developments going on at the moment. If it was so important you would imagine pilgrims flocking there from all over Turkey but no such thing has happened.

“Erdogan could have done it at any time. Even last year he gave a statement to say he would not turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque — he said we would lose more than we would gain.

“So we have to think about why he’s doing it now. We can’t enter into his mind of course, but we know that Turkey is facing a huge economic crisis and it doesn’t look like there’s any exit out of it any time soon.”

Erdogan has failed in foreign policy endeavours in both Syria and Libya, the professor said, while the domestic situation was no better, given the coronavirus pandemic and high levels of poverty and unemployment, as well as his dwindling support.

“So he’s really looking for a symbolic gesture to show that he can do things and be a strong leader of the Muslim world,” Professor Özyürek said.

As a World Heritage site, Hagia Sophia’s conversion was strongly condemned by Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), which said it “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of world heritage to be preserved”.

Neighbouring Greece, which regards itself as the heir to the Byzantine Empire, has dismissed the move in no uncertain terms, even threatening to impose sanctions. Government spokesman Stelios Petsas said: “The issue of Hagia Sophia is an international issue. The only sure thing is that such a delinquent behaviour and such a great insult should have a similar response.”

Others like France, Russia and the United States have expressed their disapproval. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said: “The United States views a change in the status of the Hagia Sophia as diminishing the legacy of this remarkable building and its unsurpassed ability — so rare in the modern world — to serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures.”

The international condemnation appears to have done little besides anger Erdogan as he said in a video conference on Saturday: “Those who do not take a step against Islamophobia in their own countries . . . attack Turkey’s will to use its sovereign rights.”

Pitting himself against international forces may have been part of the overall plan, however, according to Professor Özyürek.

“He may think it’s to his benefit that he shows how strong he is. Nobody is going to declare a war over this but if a lot of people are talking about it, that’s good for PR.”