A visit to the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul makes you feel void. The minarets seem to reach the sky. The imposing dome that towers 55 meters above you crowns the pink building. Huge bronze doors give access to a unique monument that is halfway between a church and a mosque. In the front are black panels on which ‘Allah’ and ‘Mohammed’ are inscribed in gold, with a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Jesus in between.
In its 1,500-year history, the Hagia Sofia has always been a powerful symbol. It was the most important cathedral of Christianity for almost a thousand years. After the conquest of what was then Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II, it served as the largest mosque of the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries. And Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk decided to turn Hagia Sofia into a museum in 1934 to underline the secular principles of the young republic.
This decision has never been popular with conservative religious groups in Turkey. For them, the Hagia Sofia symbolizes the Islamic victory over Christianity. In recent years, they have demanded that it be a mosque again through petitions and protests. Cautious steps have already been taken in this direction. For example, the Hagia Sofia has had an imam since 2016, the call to prayer rings from its minarets, and prayers and Quran readings are sometimes given.
Erdogan wants a correction to Atatürk’s ‘overshot secularism’
Although Erdogan declared as a young politician in the 1990s that Hagia Sofia should become a mosque again, he never followed through in his eighteen years as prime minister and president. But that may change soon. Because this Thursday, the State Council, the highest administrative court in Turkey, considered a request from a government agency to annul Atatürk’s decision.
The verdict is expected within fifteen days. In 2005, the same court turned down a similar request. But much indicates that this time it turns out differently. For example, the Hagia Sofia in Trabzon was changed from a museum to a mosque in 2013. Curtains have been hung to cover the frescoes during prayer, but tourists can still see them. And since 2019, the Chora Church in Istanbul, which first became a mosque and later a museum, is also a place of worship again.
Erdogan saw these museums as examples of what he saw as Atatürk’s secularism. He wants to correct this with his ‘New Turkey’. This project is expected to be completed by 2023, when the republic will be a hundred years old. Erdogan has already made preparations to hold the first prayer in Hagia Sofia on July 15, when the failed 2016 coup is commemorated. It seems no coincidence that the verdict is expected around that date.
This is of great concern to scientists and Christian countries. The Greek and US governments have already lodged an objection. “I hope Erdogan will not continue with something that will seriously harm Turkey,” said Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. And his US colleague Mike Pompeo called on Turkey to ensure that Hagia Sofia remains “accessible to all” as an example of his commitment to respecting diverse faith traditions.
In an open letter, hundreds of scientists call on the Turkish government to continue to take good care of the building. “Our concern is that the conflict, hitherto just a ‘war of words’, may result in an indifferent treatment of Hagia Sofia: that historical and archaeological evidence may be damaged, and works of art hidden. Hagia Sofia is too beautiful a monument and an important historical document to function as a political pawn. ”
“It would be unacceptable for this important monument to become a mosque,” said Zeynep Ahunbay, a prominent architectural historian who led partial restoration of the Hagia Sofia’s exterior in the late 1990s. “The monument is in precarious condition and needs constant care. Atatürk decided to open it up to the world and allow scientific research. The status of a museum is the best way to preserve the monument. ”
As a visitor it is difficult to imagine that the Hagia Sofia was built in just five years (532-537). “11,000 workers were deployed,” said guide Metin Koca on a guided tour. “As the most important Byzantine basilica, it was the largest building in the world at the time.” It is now 500 years ago that the Hagia Sofia last served as a church. And since then much has been lost, such as the fifteen meter long silver wall with icons, countless mosaics, and millions of gold glass cubes that formed a glittering canopy in the church.
However, the Christian character of the building is unmistakable. This starts with the structure, which represented a microcosm of heaven, with seraphim (angels with six wings) in the corners. “The main gateway, which was only to be used by the emperor, is made of bronze and wood, according to tradition of Noah’s Ark,” said Koca. He points to the place where the gatekeepers stood. “Do you see that the marble floor has worn out there?” Several mosaics have been preserved, such as the Virgin Mary with Jesus. These may be covered when Hagia Sofia becomes a mosque again.
After Sultan Mehmet II conquered Istanbul in 1453, he turned Hagia Sofia into a mosque. This allowed him to use the symbolism of the building for his own political prestige. One red minaret was added to symbolize the Islamic victory. “But the building was in very bad shape at the time,” says Koca. “That is why the famous Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan added three other minarets, on top of the buttresses he had built to support the building.”
Because worshiping a person or symbol is prohibited in Islam, Christian mosaics were covered with plaster. Six large black panels were hung on which the names of Allah, Mohammed and the first four caliphs are in gold. There was also a mirhab in the Hagia Sofia, a niche in the wall indicating the direction of Mecca. Koca: “It clearly shows that Hagia Sofia was not built as a mosque. Because the place where the altar stood does not point to Mecca. So the mihrab is slightly to the right of that. ” This means that the faithful will not pray exactly with the direction of the building when it becomes a mosque again, but something at odds with it.
After Atatürk turned Hagia Sofia into a museum in 1934, the building was secularized. He wanted to create a distance between the Turkish republic and the Ottoman empire. The building took on the character of a museum, with a cash register for ticket sales instead of a donation box. Some mosaics have been uncovered and restored. “They also wanted to remove the black panels,” said Koca. “But they did not fit through the gate, so they were hung back.”
Hagia Sofia is one of the most visited museums in Turkey and attracted three million visitors last year. This makes quite a bit of money for the company that manages ticket sales. Koca: “They just signed a five-year contract. I have no idea what will happen when Hagia Sofia becomes a mosque again. ”
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC Handelsblad of 3 July 2020
A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next dated July 3, 2020