Hagia Sophia’s precarious future

Hagia Sophia’s precarious future

There are few monuments as inspiring and as alluring as the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul. With its massive but ethereal dome and four minarets, it stands not only as an architectural testament to divinity and beauty, but also as a manifestation of the long, shared, contested, and appropriated pasts of such magnificent buildings. The Hagia Sophia was the great basilica of the emperors of Byzantium, and became the most venerated mosque of the Ottoman sultans. It now serves as a museum of the secular Turkish Republic.

Though the Hagia Sophia carries different meanings for the worlds of Christianity and Islam, believers in both religions consider it as one of the most historically important places of worship ever built. After it was opened as a museum in 1934, the site was not only secularized, but was also neutralized, which diminished its potential for inter-religious contestations.

The museumification of the Hagia Sophia, however, has long been an issue of controversy within conservative circles in Turkey. The powerful speech given by Necip Fazıl Kısakürek in 1965, when he called the Hagia Sophia Museum “a sarcophagus in which Islam is buried,” is still recited by those who wish to reopen it as a mosque. As Ayasofya Camii, the Hagia Sophia is seen as a potent symbol of conquest, of the Ottoman Empire over Byzantium and of Islam over Christianity, and as the legacy of Fatih the Conqueror, who converted the basilica into a mosque upon taking Constantinople. The status of the edifice as a museum is thus an enduring symbolic issue. This was most recently voiced by Deputy PM Bülent Arınç who made a rather enigmatic remark, as he was opening a carpet museum in the old peninsula: “Even if our ears cannot hear it, there is something in our hearts. Hagia Sophia is telling us something, what is it telling us?” This remark was widely understood as a hint at future plans for opening the Hagia Sophia for Muslim prayers.

Indeed, Arınç has been consistent in his position. Since 2011, the museumified statuses of the Hagia Sophias in İznik and in Trabzon have been challenged, and both of these former museums now serve as mosques. Deputy PM Arınç, who is in charge of the General Directorate of Pious Foundations and also a Member of Parliament from Bursa, made a public announcement upon the reopening of İznik Ayasofya Camii, stating that this was his happiest day in office. In both cases, the General Directorate of Pious Foundations actively worked to convert former museums into mosques, making legal arguments based on the legislative framework of the Pious Foundations rather than of cultural preservation and conservation.

PM Erdoğan’s stance on the issue is less clear. In answering a question on whether or not he was planning to reopen the Hagia Sophia as a mosque, he replied that even Sultanahmet was not full at prayer-times. The social-media campaigns demanding the opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque have gained momentum over the last two years, with the motto “we do not wish to enter Hagia Sophia with a ticket, rather with our ritual ablutions.” One wonders if increased demands will change the PM’s mind.
At the other end of the debate, the amplification of voices wanting to see Hagia Sophia open as a mosque creates tensions. A large spectrum of people are opposed to the reopening of Hagia Sophia for worship, though for a variety of different reasons. These include those who see this as a challenge to the secular ideals of the Republic; a fault-line that could cause inter-religious conflict; or those who oppose the idea from a cultural heritage perspective.

As the discussions and debates on the Hagia Sophia continue, the words of W.B. Yeats from his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” keep ringing in my head: “Caught in that sensual music all neglect / Monuments of an unageing intellect.” This beautiful monument of unageing intellect is indeed too precious to be caught up in the midst of the daily humdrum of politics. It deserves to survive for future generations, whatever their beliefs might be. And being caught in the middle of a political crossfire is not likely to prolong its lifespan.

*Dr. Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, Deputy Director, Center for Science and Society, Middle East Technical University