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The reconquest of Hagia Sophia?



In 2004 Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President, talked of a ‘union of civilisations’ as a counter to Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. This was the same year that the process for Turkey’s accession to the EU began, having been declared eligible for membership in 1997.

Main image: Erdogan at Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia (Turkish Presidential press office/Getty Images)

In that interview with Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspective Quarterly, Erdogan talks about the promising and positive relations that Turkey’s accession will bring between Islam and the West as ‘a bridge between Europe and Asia.’ When asked about his Justice and Development Party being a ‘Muslim party’ he rejected that characterisation, saying that people can be Muslim but not the party, ‘we are neither Islamic nor Islamist’.

Yet Erdogan’s remarks in relation to the Hagia Sophia is one that is heavily influenced and panders to his Islamist sentiments and supporters. Hagia Sophia, often touted as the pinnacle of Byzantine church architecture and design, was reverted to a museum in 1935 by the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kemal Ataturk. Altering its status to a mosque is clearly about propping up Erdogan’s Islamist credentials and base, which have slowly been eroding civil freedoms in the Turkish nation.

Erdogan’s Islamist agenda can be seen both in domestic and foreign policy. In 2018 the JDP formed a coalition with the far-right conservative Nationalist Movement Party, bringing an otherwise periphery group into a conservative ‘democratic’ bloc. When the Arab Spring broke out across the Middle East Turkey naturally formed alliances with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and supported various Islamist groups fighting in Syria, both countries which have been otherwise secular republics.

Going back further Erdogan’s political beginnings, according to Metin Herper, where at the think tank National View Association which was allied with the first two religiously oriented political parties, the National Order Party and the National Salvation Party. Yet Herper goes on to paint a picture of a progressive Erdogan who respected the democratic process, free speech and was ‘interested in moral development rather than a state based on Islam.’ However, his recent record tells of a different story. Under his watch journalists, dissidents and academics have been silenced and locked up.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey was one the world’s worst jailers of journalists in 2018 for a third straight year. In 2019 it imprisoned 47 journalists. Kaya Genc, writing for Foreign Affairs, says that during his rule Erdogan has managed to marginalise opposition and establish a subservient press, but has remained otherwise a successful populist, ‘he is polarising and popular, autocratic and fatherly, calculating and listless.’


'But the status of Hagia Sophia is not exclusively about Islamist populism. It is also about Turkey’s standing in world politics and Erdogan’s self-appointed role as a defender of Islam in what he sees as a hostile Western stance against Muslims.'


Altering the status of Hagia Sophia is tactical and fits the Islamist narrative and banks on a historical nostalgia, though arguably misplaced, of Islamic conquest. In his announcement Erdogan described the conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and the conversion of the site into a mosque as ‘the most glorious of chapters in Turkish history’.

The date, 24 July 2020, at which the Hagia Sophia reopened for prayer is also tactical. As Selim Koru for the New York Times has pointed out 24 July is the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, signed between the Allies and Turkey which drew the borders of the modern Turkish state.

But the status of Hagia Sophia is not exclusively about Islamist populism. It is also about Turkey’s standing in world politics and Erdogan’s self-appointed role as a defender of Islam in what he sees as a hostile Western stance against Muslims. Of course, the West has not always welcomed the building of mosques in their countries and communities. The banning of minarets in Sweden, the controversy of the ‘ground zero’ mosque in New York, and the Bendigo protests in Victoria are just a few examples.

With the status change of Hagia Sophia the yoke of a foreign cultural imposition is, in some ways, being challenged and the ‘dream of Turkey’s Islamists’, as Koru puts it, fulfilled. It is a question of sovereignty for Erdogan and he has couched the decree as such, ‘any approach or view which goes beyond voicing of opinions, is a violation of our independence’.

While Erdogan has said the site will remain open to all, the rhetoric and historical war references he has used do not subscribe to a ‘union of civilisations’ and some writers have rightly labelled Erdogan’s actions as contrary to Islamic principles. In Greece, 24 July was declared a day of mourning. UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay responded by saying the Hagia Sophia’s ‘status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue’ — a dialogue that Erdogan is clearly not interested in having. He is more interested in remaining politically relevant and reinstating the glory of Ottoman history and conquest. For Erdoganism it is better to have believers than to have voters.



Daniel SleimanDaniel Sleiman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Canberra.

Main image: Erdogan at Friday prayers in Hagia Sophia (Turkish Presidential press office/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Daniel Sleiman, Hagia Sophia, Ergodan, Turkey



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Existing comments

Both Muslims and Christians should be permitted to worship at Hagia Sophia, perhaps on different days. If indeed it is again now, a place of worship.

ao | 28 July 2020  

The photo of the interior of Hagia Sophia is revealing for two reasons: firstly, the rich and exquisitely beautiful interior of the vast place of worship, and the men (wearing suits) in the front of the photo. The interiors of the Hagia Sophia contain many priceless icons of Christian and Islamic origin and it will be the conservators of these icons who will need to guard their inestimable value to the people of Turkey and, indeed, to the many visitors from all over the world. Political pressures may well have contributed to Erdogan's decision in regards to Hagia Sophia: a sad outcome, both for Christian and inter-faith perspectives.

Pam | 28 July 2020  

I would far rather it was a place of worship than a museum.

Margaret | 28 July 2020  

Daniel Sleiman explains very well why a Turkey led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot be seen as a valid bridge between Islam and the West. A 2019 Human Rights Watch report on Turkey accused the Erdogan regime of widespread and systematic use of torture, ill treatment of prisoners, abductions, the targetting of human rights defenders, restrictions to the right of assembly and trade union activity. It also includes concerning reports of the harsh treatment of Kurds both within its territory and in the northern region of Syria. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/turkey In addition, the Turkish Army has been supporting the Free Syrian Army and other anti Syrian government armed groups in the NE of Syria - where according to an Amnesty International report "have displayed a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks that have killed and injured civilians, during the offensive into northeast Syria,.. " https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/10/syria-damning-evidence-of-war-crimes-and-other-violations-by-turkish-forces-and-their-allies/ This is in addition to Turkey's role in Syria during the civil war when it joined the US, Israel, Qatar and Saudi Arabia along with various terrorist Islamic groups to bring down the Assad government. I tend to agree with ao that it would be good if both Muslims and Christians could worship at Hagia Sophia while possibly allowing its important function as a museum to be resumed. However, this is very unlikely to occur while Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in power.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 30 July 2020  

Whatever the outcome of allowing both Christian and Muslim worship in the basilica there are other unanswered questions. What is to become of the ongoing work of uncovering the priceless sixth and seventh century mosaics? I cannot imagine that true Muslims will long tolerate the existence of the many beautiful icons which have been restored to date let alone the continuing restoration work. This is nothing but a political Islamist ploy. There are dozens of well known mosques in Istanbul, one of the best known and largest is the Blue Mosque only a few hundred meters away from Hagia Sophia. I have seen it only partially full during prayer times so it’s not as though another mosque was needed.

Peter | 31 July 2020  

I suppose Islam, like Christianity, welcomes repentance and conversion. It took him a while but finally, as a Muslim, Erdogan did what he always should have, restored the grandest building in Turkey to its true function under Allah. A church is where the Real Presence is permanently reserved. Hagia Sophia hasn’t been a church for centuries and, between the Orthodox Schism and the Ottoman sultanate, was only technically a church courtesy of the Pope’s obligation to honour the Orthodox Church’s belief in Real Presence as privileging it to be considered a church rather than an ecclesiastical organisation. Because Islam cannot tolerate the presence of the concept of the Real Presence in a mosque, Hagia Sophia, as long as Turkey is ruled by neo-Ottomans, will always be a mosque rather than a church. If the secularists return, it will only be a pretty public showpiece as the Church cannot reserve the Real Presence in what is otherwise an uncouth public thoroughfare. But, at least, Erdogan serves to Christianity, in particular the anaemic Western strand, a witness of what it is not to be a surrender monkey.

roy chen yee | 01 August 2020  

For most of its life Hagia Sophia has been a place of worship for the majority community in Istanbul/Constantinople. Both its original Orthodox builders and worshippers and the Muslims who used it for hundreds of years after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 would be horrified to think of it as a museum rather than a place of worship. It was always meant to be alive with worshippers, not a dead 'cultural artefact'. It is a contested sacred space and means an enormous deal to both Greek and Turk. Apart from a brief period under a Latin Patriarch, and of course the years of Kemalism, it has been under the control of either Orthodoxy or Islam. The beautiful Christian art work was never defaced but whitewashed over. Erdogan has surprised many observers in the Muslim World, who are aware of the deleterious effect this move will have on their already battered image in the West. One problem I see from the reconversion into a mosque is that the West will again see Islam as its major enemy, rather than the dual dangers of Neo-Marxism in its academia and the dangers of Communist China, which is far more of a threat to all vital religion.

Edward Fido | 05 August 2020