The Hagia Sophia, meaning ancient wisdom in Greek, is a historic place of worship in Istanbul, Turkey. A Christian basilica for over a thousand years, it became a mosque, then a museum and, as of July 2020, a mosque once more.
Emperor Justinian built the Hagia Sophia in 532, when Istanbul was Constantinople and capital of the Byzantine Empire. Built of marble, concrete, porphyry and stucco, it contained the largest dome and was the largest church for 1,000 years. Hagia Sophia is the crowning achievement of Byzantine architecture. Referencing the old temple in Jerusalem, Justinian allegedly said ‘Solomon, I have outdone thee’. He and his successors filled the basilica with mosaics depicting Byzantine emperors and empresses and Orthodox saints, priceless artifacts today. Byzantine domes as represented in Hagia Sophia became a staple of Islamic architecture.
In 1453, Sultan Mehmet of the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople. Rather than destroy or maintain Hagia Sophia, he converted it into a mosque. As Islam prohibits religious icons, he replaced some mosaics with Arabic calligraphy and concealed others. The Ottomans added four minarets to the structure and buried five of their sultans in Hagia Sophia. Orthodox Christians, who form the majority in Greece and many Eastern European countries, mourned the conversion of their holy site.
The Ottoman Empire fell in 1918. By 1922, Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey. A devoted secularist, Ataturk officially closed the Hagia Sophia to worship in 1934. He opened it instead as a museum; a monument to Istanbul’s multicultural heritage and a gallery of its intricate artwork. He commissioned John Whittlemore, an an American archaeologist to restore the damaged mosaics. By doing so, Ataturk hoped to heal old wounds and invoke the image of a new and secular Turkey in place of the theocratic Ottoman Empire. UNESCO named it a world heritage site in 1984, proclaiming its ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. As of 2020, Hagia Sophia receives 37 million visitors a year.
Enter 2020. Tayyip Erdogan, a longtime president popular with conservative Turkish Muslims, loses his political hold on Istanbul in a landslide. On 10th July the Turkish court ratifies his decision to annul Hagia Sophia’s museum status and make it a mosque once again. It will be open to all religions and nationalities outside of prayer times, during which its mosaics will be covered up.
Critics accuse Erdogan of firing up his base in the face of a looming election and reversing his souring popularity. Patriarch Bartholomew (right), the Istanbul based Orthodox leader called the decision ‘disappointing’, the World Council of Churches expressed ‘grief and dismay’, Patriarch Kiril of Moscow called it a ‘threat to Christian civilization’. UNESCO mentioned the move was done without their consent and could breach the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Erdogan stated it was in his rights as the site falls under Turkish national authority. Reactions within the country were mixed.
Turkey sits on the crossroads of east and west. Ataturk sought to make it a secular country but since Erdogan took power, Turkey is pulling away from its founding principles to Erdogan’s blend of conservative authoritarianism. Having so dismayed its members, particularly Greece, Turkey is unlikely to join the EU under his rule.
Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Greek Reporter, UNESCO, Washington Post