Church, Museum, Mosque

Julian Sayarer

Hagia Sophia the last time it was a mosque

For the second time in its history, Hagia Sophia has been turned into a mosque. The first time was after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Atatürk turned it into a secular museum in 1934. Last Friday, a court ruled that conversion to have been illegal. The first prayers will be held on 24 July, the anniversary of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. The move is widely seen as the latest step in the Islamisation of Turkish society under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP.

Foreign governments, Christian leaders and Western newspapers have condemned the move. The New York Times described it as an attempt by Erdoğan to ‘stir his conservative and nationalist base’. Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, the director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, has been widely quoted saying that most Turks ‘would favour such a decision for religious or nationalist sentiments’. It’s true that the forced, top-down process of secularisation in the 20th century was a source of grievance that Erdoğan has thrived on. But the redesignation of a historic building as a mosque rather than a museum is of low concern for the millions of Turks struggling under economic anxiety and the Covid-19 pandemic. Even among the diehards – dwindling in number – who remain happy with life under the AKP, many will have higher priorities.

Garo Paylan, a Turkish-Armenian parliamentarian with the opposition People’s Democratic Party, said that the conversion is the last thing Turkey needs for its interfaith relations. Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, of the opposition Republican People’s Party and of Pontic Greek heritage, said he’d always thought of Hagia Sophia as a mosque anyway. He also reminded people that Erdoğan has in the past cautioned against reconsecrating the building in case it prompt reciprocal threats against mosques elsewhere in the world. There have been suggestions in Greece that Atatürk’s birthplace, in a backstreet in Thessaloniki, should be turned into a genocide museum.

Lost in the clash-of-civilisations din is the question of whether cultural heritage sites should be closed off as museums or continue to be lived-in places, including places that are at times used for worship. The Blue Mosque, a stone’s throw from Hagia Sophia, has never struggled to attract visitors and tourists of all faiths, simply closing at prayer time. More prosaically, getting into Hagia Sophia used to cost $15, roughly a day’s work at the national minimum wage, and way beyond the means of the average Turkish family. The mosque will be more accessible to thousands of Turkish Christians than the museum ever was. (Abolishing the entrance fee may cost the state $70 million a year.) Erdoğan has said that the building remains open to all, ‘local and foreign, Muslim and non-Muslim’. He apparently gave similar assurances over the phone to Vladimir Putin, who envisages himself as a protector of Orthodox Christians every bit as much as Erdoğan likes to see himself as a defender of Muslims.

Other questions present themselves. ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ is an increasingly popular label for AKP policy, both domestically and regionally, but it’s an awkward fit with Erdoğan’s Turkish nationalism and something that might be better-described as pan-Turkic. At its peak, and even to an extent in its decline, the Ottoman Empire was home to Turks, Greeks, Jews, Arabs and Armenians. ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ could more productively be used as a challenge to the AKP to build a more multicultural and diverse Turkish society.

Specific concerns about the fabric of the building seem overdone. There is an ahistorical anxiety about what will happen to the Christian frescoes: they survived (under plaster) the building’s previous, five-century stint as a mosque.

The ‘other’ Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church-turned-museum with the same name (it means ‘Holy Wisdom’) in Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, was taken over by the city’s religious authorities in 2012. It has since functioned as both mosque and museum, with separate areas for worship and some frescoes covered during prayer. There has been a back-and-forth between religious authorities, architects and conservationists, not to mention nearby shopkeepers concerned that an overzealous covering of the Christian frescoes would reduce the appeal of the church to tourists, and with it their revenues.

The failure to recognise this kind of democratic process – the presumption of a nefarious, omnipotent state before which Turks are either adoring or inert – is perhaps the most condescending omission from Western discourse. No matter the number of officials insisting that lighting (‘lasers’, according to the Washington Post) or curtains will be used to conceal images during prayers at Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, or that the building will continue in its splendour for all humanity, Western observers are all too ready to invoke the spectre of marauding infidels desecrating a church.

Away from international attention, protests have continued in Istanbul for the last month against imminent changes to the rules governing lawyers and their professional associations. The proposed system is likely to favour the setting up of new bar associations, as a challenge to existing ones that criticise the government. The designation of a religious building continues to raise passions far and wide; a reduction in the powers of civil society to check the executive in its overreach remains an uninspiring affair.


  • 18 July 2020 at 9:08am
    Rodney says:
    Thanks for this article.

  • 19 July 2020 at 2:05pm
    Joe Stratton says:
    Thank you

  • 19 July 2020 at 5:41pm
    Mogens Larsen says:
    What is Turkish nationalism? I have worked for a lifetime with an archaological site near Kayseri (Caesaria) called Kültepe. It is a city that was a thriving international trade center in the Middle Bronze Age. Long, long before any Seljuk or Ottoman Turk arrived on the scene. My philological colleagues at Ankara university refuse to come to the bi-annual conference held here, because the language of the meeting is English rather than Turkish. But in what sense is Kültepe a Turkish site or settlement? The same colleagues publish editions of the (Assyrian) texts found there purely in Turkish. They tell me that this is Turkish history - simply because it is located in an area that is now inhabited by (mostly) Turkish speaking people.
    Mogens Trolle Larsen,

  • 19 July 2020 at 10:16pm
    Zafer Aydın says:
    I really wonder your source for making İmamoğlu Pontic Greek descent.