Hagia Sophia is an ancient and emblematic temple It was a place of worship for Orthodox Christians and Muslims at different times in history. Built about 1,500 years ago, it was originally an Orthodox basilica that sheltered for nine centuries the religious heart of the old Byzantine Empire.
Then in 1453, when the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II made his triumphal entry with his troops into the ancient Byzantine capital called Constantinople, now known as Istanbul, the destination of Hagia Sophia change. After the invasion it was converted into a mosque of Muslim worship.
(In context: This was the first Muslim prayer in Hagia Sophia)
Five centuries Hagia Sophia was in the hands of the Ottoman Empire like a mosque. However, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, considered the father of modern Turkey and who secularized the country, gave it the status of a museum in 1934. His decision was based in the cosmopolitan ideal of honoring the home of two religions (Christian and Muslim).
The Danistay’s decision is the result of President Erdogan’s political will, and confirms that there is no independent justice in Turkey.
But recently, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced through television the change of status of Hagia Sophia. It ceased to be a museum to become again what it had been since 1453: a muslim mosque.
The decision was not exclusive to Erdogan.
The announcement came after the country’s highest court, known as Danistay, declared invalid the 1934 ministerial decision that turned the building into a museum, something that it had previously denied on previous occasions, and gave the president free rein to reconsider the status.
Erdogan in his speech recalled in detail the triumphal entry of Sultan Mehmet II into ancient Constantinople. He even had the luxury of reciting a poem that describes this reconversion of Hagia Sophia as “The second conquest of Istanbul”.
(It may interest you: The ancient battle for a temple called Hagia Sophia)
That symbolic ‘reconquest’ to which Erdogan makes reference is a longing to the golden age of the Turkish-Ottoman Empire. This is not a minor fact, due to the gradual Islamization of the country at the hands of the conservative Erdogan, against the concept of the secular republic of Atatürk. Therefore, what happened unleashes an exciting debate, of light and shadow, between historians and political scientists about the consequences it has for the cultural legacy, religious, social and geopolitical this decision.
A unique work
“Hagia Sophia is one of the turning points in the history of architecture. With its unique architecture and mosaic decorations, it can be considered as the masterpiece of late ancient Christian art. On the other hand, the Ottoman additions to the structure are so beautiful and harmonious that they make it a masterpiece of Islamic art. This makes the building unique and an important cultural heritage of all cultures, “he explained to TIME Engin Akyürek, professor at Koç University in Istanbul and expert in archeology and history of ancient Byzantine art.
And he added: “When being converted to a mosque, several characteristics are going to be changed according to the Islamic ritual. So the most convenient status for Hagia Sophia is that of a museum. “
For Adrián Mac Liman, a political analyst from the Arab world and who spoke with this newspaper, the decision regarding Hagia Sophia also goes beyond that cultural legacy. For him, Erdogan seeks to end Atatürk’s legacy. “Religious parties have always denied the secular state. Its primary objective is to destroy it“He added.
(Read here: The Hagia Sophia Basilica in Istanbul, again a mosque)
But the debate is much more complex. As mentioned before, Erdogan’s decision to convert Hagia Sophia had the backing of Danistay. Even, it is a process that took several years seeking a resolution in the Turkish courts, according to Öner Bucukcu, an academic at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University and who is currently a visiting professor at the Externado University of Colombia.
Bucukcu said that to understand the case of Hagia Sophia in more depth, one must speak of the concept of “Tradition of legal foundation” existing in Turkey. “Foundations are matters of private law, and those foundation statuses are protected by law. The State cannot change those purposes of that foundation or its objectives (…). Sultan Mehmet turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul and created a foundation for Hagia Sophia. “
And I add: “But in 1934, when Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by decision of the Council of Ministers, they were not authorized for that decision (due to the foundation status it had) ”. Bucukcu mentioned that, at that time, a formal process had to be presented, but it was only done until 1994, when the citizen Ismail Kandemir appealed to Danistay to suspend that execution. “It is, therefore, a legal and not a political decision“He explained.
When being converted to a mosque, several characteristics are going to be changed according to the Islamic ritual. So the most convenient status for Hagia Sophia is that of a museum
According to a poll in Turkey, in the AKP party, founded by Erdogan, 90 percent expressed their support for the idea of Hagia Sophia being a mosque. On the other hand, 40 percent of members of the opposition CHP party supported that transition.
“Erdogan wants to consolidate his supporters and Hagia Sophia is the last thing he can offer them”Akyürek said.
On the support from citizens, the expert mentions that currently a very small portion of the Turkish walking population is interested in the status of the ancient basilica.
“Turning it into a mosque will satisfy certain segments of society who consider that turning it into a museum was an unfair movement. They identify with Mehmet’s legacy”Mine Yildirim, who works for the Freedom of Belief Initiative in Turkey organization of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, explained to this newspaper.
Akyürek, Yildirim y Bucukcu They consider that this decision has nothing to do with secularization in Turkey, which was promoted during the Atatürk reforms. In fact, for Bucukcu it is a sovereign decision protected under Turkish law and has nothing to do with politics. Pero money Akyürek y Yildirim obeys the simple idea of taking advantage of the religious feelings of some sectors, like nationalists, for political purposes.
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In Turkey, politicians seem to agree with the decision. Muharrem Ince, leader of the opposition CHP party, was happy on Twitter about the change in status. Ince said this was not a matter for Greece, the United States, or Germany: “It is an internal matter of Turkey.”But the truth is that the decision did not go down well in the world because the fate of Hagia Sophia is not considered a matter of the exclusive spring of the Turks.
World leaders, religious leaders and even the UN spoke out against the decision, which opened yet another wound to the already existing tensions between Greece and Turkey. The top political leaders in Athens, with a deep Orthodox Christian legacy, called the decision a “challenge”.
The Danistay’s decision is the “Result of political will” from President Erdogan, and “Confirms that there is no independent justice in Turkey”, especially when the same court rejected the attempt to Islamize the temple just a few years ago, said Greece’s culture minister.
For its part, the Russian Orthodox Church regretted the decision. Spokesman Nikolai Balashov told Interfax agency that “It is a fact that can have serious consequences for humanity” And then added: “I am convinced that this will have negative repercussions for inter-religious peace”. Even President Vladimir Putin himself was upset with the decision.
In 1934, when Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by decision of the Council of Ministers, they were not authorized for that decision (due to the foundation status it had)
But How far can the geopolitical tensions generated by the reconversion of Hagia Sophia go?
For Mauricio Jaramillo, professor of International Relations at the Universidad del Rosario and expert in Turkish affairs, this impasse, although symbolic, it will not have major repercussions in the chess of world geopolitics.
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Jaramillo explains that today Turkey and Europe need each other to deal with critical issues such as migration from countries of Middle East mired in war, economic and commercial cooperation in times of pandemic, the stabilization of Syria and the situation of the Kurdish people, issues that urge Brussels.
“This is a historical demand that conditions Turkey’s relations, but I do not think that there will be a great crisis every day. Turkey’s relationship with Europe and Greece will not change. These geopolitical issues are urgent, they are most necessary and this will remain a media issue that will be part of the annals of encyclopedias, ”he predicted.
CARLOS J. REYES