On Friday 24th July, Turkey opened the historic Aya Sofya Grand Mosque or Hagia Sophia again for Muslim worship after a gap of nearly 86 years. On 10 June, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had formally passed a decree to reconvert the museum into a mosque after the highest Administrative Court in Turkey ruled that the 1934 decision to convert the mosque into a museum was unlawful. A call to the prayer was heard from the mosque as jubilant citizens thronged outside the mosque immediately after the President announced the news. On Friday, thousands of worshippers gathered for congregational prayers as the world witnessed the Ottoman-era Mosque open for Muslim worshippers again.
The UNESCO world heritage site will however remain open to non-Muslims and foreigners as President Erdogan underlined “we will open Hagia Sophia to worship as a mosque by preserving its character of humanity’s common cultural heritage.”
Mosaics and frescoes of Jesus and Mary are preserved. They are draped with curtains during Muslim prayers. The historic gem now remains open to all visitors without payment of any fees.
The reopening of the mosque has raised important questions around Turkey’s modern, secular character and its deep-rooted Islamic past. Islam is the largest religion in Turkey and Muslims account for nearly 98% of the population while Christians only 0.2% among others. So despite calls from its majority Muslim population over the years to correct the historic “big mistake” made during the World War era why did Turkey take 86 long years to use its own mosque? Or even so, why did it close the mosque for worship in the first place? The answer lies in not just Turkey’s history but its continued pursuit of Westernisation and integration with Europe.
After the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottomans renovated the dilapidated 6th Century Hagia Sophia Orthodox Cathedral (which was also converted as Roman Catholic Cathedral in 13th Century by Crusaders) and used it as a mosque. It continued to be a mosque for over 480 years until in 1934 the new “modern” and “secular” Republic of Turkey led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk decided to convert it into a museum. Mustafa Kemal, under whom the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished, intended to “Europeanise” or Westernise the country after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire by Allied Powers during the World War. He implemented reforms including secularisation and industrialisation. He offered a new version of Turkey to the world “powers” (whose leadership was mostly Christian) – as a country which was not concerned with religion and which was moving away from the Islamic Caliphate era. He converted the architectural landmark of Turkey to attract Europe and the World to see it as a nation that preserved the Byzantine era heritage without ownership rights earned by majority Muslim population. He achieved secularisation at the cost of Turkish Muslims and their right to worship in their mosque. The move went well with the West that saw Turkey as moving closer to Europe while moving away from its former Middle Eastern and Islamic orientation.
Turkey pursued its fascination for Europe by establishing association with Council of Europe, NATO and then the European Economic Community in 1963. Turkey is one of EU’s main partners in the Middle East and both are members of the European Union–Turkey Customs Union. The Turkish expert Meltem Ahıska outlines the Turkish position vis-à-vis Europe, explaining how “Europe has been an object of desire as well as a source of frustration for Turkish national identity in a long and strained history”. Turkey that was amongst the earliest applicants to accede to the EU in 1987 has been denied accession till date. The EU has managed to exclude Turkey from political positions and preclude its recourse to European Court of Justice to some extent. On 26 June 2018, the EU’s General Affairs Council stated whilst stalling accession negotiations that “the Council notes that Turkey has been moving further away from the European Union”.
Criticism of Turkey in the West is mainly led by those who see Turkey moving away from the West towards a more Middle Eastern and Islamic orientation. After Erdogan’s AK Party came to power Turkey’s disillusionment with Europe became more and more visible. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (a.k.a AK Party) has mainly supported a greater influence of Ottoman culture in domestic social policy which has caused issues with people who see it as a threat to the secular and republican credentials of modern Turkey. Forces that are equally averse to Turkey’s present position under the AK party even carried out a failed coup in 2016.
Turkey’s present decision to use the architectural landmark as a mosque as per the legal declaration in the endowment of Mehmet II has been acclaimed by majority Turkish population that supports Erdogan’s Party and its Ottoman leanings. The move however has ‘disappointed’ the West, ‘pained’ the Christians and is ‘regretted’ by supporters of the idea of secularism around the world.
While it is easy to criticise Turkey for changing an 86-year-old status quo, the 1934 decision itself was untenable as it aimed at achieving a political purpose to the detriment of the Turkish Muslims. It should be remembered that the question before the court was not whether the Conquest of Constantinople was legal which itself had effected the change from a church to the mosque (because if that was so then numerous other wars fought in history can also be easily questioned for their legality, fairness and reasonableness) but whether the 1934 decision to convert (so as to close) the mosque was illegal and the court rightly observed that it was.
While most of the criticism is directed at how the decision would change the secular character of Turkey or how people would now perceive Turkey as being closed to other religions, it should be noted that the monument is still open to Christians and people of all faiths – just like before – and Turkey has not “defiled” the place as Greeks have called it, as Christian mosaics and icons remain unharmed.
How are objectives of secularism achieved by dedicating monuments as “symbols of interfaith and intercultural dialogue” when the same is not reciprocated in other parts of the world by the very people who call on Turkish Muslims to give up their rights? The architectural masterpiece of the Great Mosque of Cordoba which was built in the 8th Century by the Muslims and expanded over the centuries by Muslim rulers was converted by Christians, and serves as a Catholic Cathedral today housing 40 chapels. Spanish Church Authorities and the Vatican have regularly opposed all requests by Muslims to pray inside the building. In July 2019, the Mayor of Cordoba, Jose Maria Bellido, even closed a commission investigating ownership rights with “no intention of reactivating it”.
With regular restrictions placed on Al Aqsa mosque the West does not appear “disappointed”, or even “pained” at the plight of Muslims of Palestine but instead supports further annexation whilst disregarding how “different cultures and faiths could co-exist” – an idea of symbolism that the West regularly attributes to Hagia Sophia.
By opposing the move to reconvert a museum that supposedly stood as a “symbol of religious harmony” the West claims to have higher standards or more noble beliefs than is the case.