It is safe to say that Hagia Sophia is one of Turkey’s most notable landmarks. With its breathtaking architecture, magnificent mosaics, and an intricate design that showcases the beauty of both the Eastern and Western world — its existence is a proud reminder on how mankind was already so developed in the past. It honestly came to no one’s surprise when Hagia Sophia secured a spot in UNESCO’s World Heritage List back in 1985.
The building has a very interesting history. The current structure is basically remnants of a church built in 532 AD under the reign of Emperor Justinian I. It then served as a place of Christian worship for about 916 years. In 1453, it was rebranded as a mosque literally three days after Fatih Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul). The structure went through a series of renovations throughout the Ottoman period until it became the Hagia Sophia that we see today. Hagia Sophia was finally repurposed as a museum under the orders of Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, in 1935.
Due to this rich history, Turkey’s decision on converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque created an uproar. There were numerous complaints from international society. Turkey has published justifications for their decision, but some parties are still unable to accept this newly established policy. Even if we disregard the religious reasonings, there are still a handful of reasons why some people believe Hagia Sophia should have stayed as a museum. This article will only refer to two major reasons that are constantly highlighted by international observers.
The first reason stems from a geopolitical and international relations perspective. As stated earlier, there have been numerous backlash from the international scene regarding Turkey’s decision. One of the more aggressive protests originated from Greece. We must first understand that even before Hagia Sophia’s conversion, the bilateral relationship between Greece and Turkey has been very rocky.
This can be credited to issues regarding refugee movements and the case of Cyprus. Salt was added to Greece’s wounds because of the conversion as Greece sees themselves as the heir to the Byzantine Empire. Hagia Sophia is the face of Byzantine heritage; hence, Greece felt the need to protect anything related to Byzantium or Orthodox Christian remains. With that being said, Turkey’s decision might worsen relations with Greece, contracting possible economic sanctions and boycotts.
Russia also has a say in the Hagia Sophia controversy. Currently, the largest Orthodox Christian community is housed under the Church of Russia and they are concerned with the conversion. As expressed by the Church’s leader, Patriarch Kirill, Christendom is deeply pained by Turkey’s decision of highlighting Hagia Sophia’s past as a mosque above its past as a church. The site’s neutrality bothered no party, and it would have been better if it stayed that way. Despite it all, Russia officially declared that they will not interfere with Turkey’s decision as it is not Moscow’s place to plead. This decision, however, does not discount any disappointment that Russia has over Turkey.
Turkey’s decision might also become a gateway to a future of difficult international cooperation. The lack of communication between Ankara and UNESCO regarding the conversion was seen by Western countries as Erdoğan’s disrespect towards international obligations and institutions. Preceded by Erdoğan’s past decisions that are deemed controversial, one might say that Turkey’s relationship with Europe and the Western parts of the world will continue to deteriorate due to Hagia Sophia.
The second reason revolves around how unfair Turkey’s decision was in converting the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque. To understand the context of this argument, we must first understand the reason why Hagia Sophia turned into a museum in the first place. It is said that Atatürk wanted Hagia Sophia to belong to all nations and religions rather than just one specific group. He wanted to respect Hagia Sophia’s past as a church and a mosque, and he wanted to make sure that no one felt entitled to claim the site.
Along with that, Atatürk’s decision was also based on Turkey’s secularization and modernization agenda. Atatürk’s Turkey wanted to shed its Ottoman identity and become a much more developed country; putting Western countries as Turkey’s example. Understanding the West’s fascination towards science and arts, Atatürk decided to make Hagia Sophia the hub for Byzantine culture and studies. This made sense as Hagia Sophia literally translates to ‘holy wisdom,’ meaning that Hagia Sophia also served as an intersection between science and religion. At the end of the day, the Hagia Sophia Museum eradicated superiority of Islam over Christianity and vice versa. Instead, it became a symbol of Turkey’s modern society and peace between different groups and/or nations; a true humanist site.
The reconversion of Hagia Sophia was seen as Turkey’s insistence on putting Hagia Sophia’s Islamic history above everything else, acting as if the Christian and Byzantine timeline did not matter as much. Some believe that this act may create mistrust, division, and a difficult environment for future cooperation between countries and religions. What started as the symbol of coexistence between religions and regions might become the reason why those two elements fall apart.
With all that has been said and done, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia cannot be disturbed. The decision made on July 10, 2020, was purely a domestic decision that has no room for international meddling. Even if the international realm wanted to punish Turkey, it is difficult to do. Technically speaking, Turkey has not broken any international law, so there is no reason for the world to legally attack Turkey. The least that we can do now is mourn over the loss of such a magnetic site that showcased the beauty of humanity and the coexistence of many groups.
1 “Historic Areas of Istanbul,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre (UNESCO), accessed July 26, 2020, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/356.
2 “İstanbul – Hagia Sophia Museum,” Museums of the General Directorate of Monuments and Museums (Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism), accessed July 26, 2020, https://www.ktb.gov.tr/EN-113941/istanbul—hagia-sophia-museum.html.
3 Ishaan Tharoor, “The Trouble with Making Hagia Sophia a Mosque Again,” Today’s WorldView (The Washington Post, July 13, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/07/13/hagia-sofia-mosque-erdogan/.
4 “Why Turkey and Greece Cannot Reconcile,” The Economist Explains (The Economist, December 14, 2017), https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2017/12/14/why-turkey-and-greece-cannot-reconcile.
5 Carlotta Gall, “Erdogan Signs Decree Allowing Hagia Sophia to Be Used as a Mosque Again,” Europe (The New York Times, July 10, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/10/world/europe/hagia-sophia-erdogan.html.
6 Anthee Carassava, “Greek Businesses Move to Boycott Trade with Turkey over Hagia Sophia,” Europe (Voice of America, July 26, 2020), https://www.voanews.com/europe/greek-businesses-move-boycott-trade-turkey-over-hagia-sophia.
7 AFP, “Russian Orthodox Leader Warns Turkey Over Hagia Sophia Move,” Turkey (The Moscow Times, July 6, 2020), https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/07/06/russian-orthodox-leader-warns-turkey-over-hagia-sophia-move-a70792.
8 Australian Associated Press, “Putin Says Hagia Sophia ‘Symbol of Peace’,” World (The Canberra Times, July 23, 2020), https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6846434/putin-says-hagia-sophia-symbol-of-peace/?cs=14232.
9 Stavros Papagianneas, “Turkey’s Decision to Remove Hagia Sophia’s Universal Status Is a New Provocation of Europe,” Europe (Euronews, July 23, 2020), https://www.euronews.com/2020/07/23/turkey-s-decision-to-remove-hagia-sophia-s-universal-status-is-a-new-provocation-of-europe.
10 Jonathan Stearns, “EU Urges Turkey to ‘Reverse’ Hagia Sophia Reconversion Plan,” Politics (Bloomberg, July 13, 2020), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-13/eu-urges-turkey-to-reverse-hagia-sophia-reconversion-plan.
11 C. Katipoğlu and Ç. Caner-Yüksel, “Hagia Sophia ‘Museum’: A Humanist Project of the Turkish Republic,” in Constructing Cultural Identity: Representing Social Power (Pisa: Ed. PLUS – Pisa Univ. Press, 2010), 214.
12 Ibid., 214-217.
13 Jonathan Stearns, “EU Urges Turkey to ‘Reverse’ Hagia Sophia Reconversion Plan,” Politics (Bloomberg, July 13, 2020), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-07-13/eu-urges-turkey-to-reverse-hagia-sophia-reconversion-plan.