Centuries-old Hagia Sophia must defy arguments

Centuries-old Hagia Sophia must defy arguments

The latest announcement landed in my inbox on Saturday evening. “The Board of the Association of the Constantinopolitans utterly condemns the provocative action by the Turkish authorities to allow the calling of prayers and the reading of the Quran inside the Hagia Sophia, in the presence of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet). This unacceptable action by Turkey brutally insults the religious feelings of the orthodox Christians and proves its contempt for the human values of world culture, the freedom of religion and human rights,” read the statement from the association, which is based in Athens, where many locals claim to have family origins in Istanbul.

It was the latest in a series of angry exchanges on all levels between Turkey and Greece involving politicians, religious representatives, cultural bodies, media outlets, and ordinary citizens arguing passionately over one of world’s greatest masterpieces: The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. 

This superb but structurally vulnerable wonder is today a museum open to visitors, and has been standing on an unstable seismic location since the 6th century. It is once again at the center of a fevered discussion over its use and purpose. 

The possibility of reconverting Hagia Sophia to its last religious use, for Muslim prayers, is not new. It has been on and off on the agenda of the current political administration since 2010. The first hints came from leading members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) that “the job with Hagia Sophia must be completed and it should be returned to its ‘correct faith.’” 

Two other Hagia Sophias in Turkey have already been converted using the same argument: First, the Hagia Sophia of İznik (Nicaea), which is of similar age as the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It was also built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the middle of the 6th century, but was converted to a mosque over a century before its mother church in Constantinople because Nicaea (İznik) was taken by the Ottomans in 1337. It served as a mosque for more than 700 years and then – like Hagia Sophia in Istanbul - became a museum in 1935. Then in 2011 it was converted back into a mosque in 2011, raising many questions as almost no feature of the original structure remained after the conversion. This was particularly controversial as it is one of the most important sites in all of Christianity, where the Second Synod in 787 put an end to the question of iconoclasm. 

The second Hagia Sophia is located in the city of Trabzon on the Black Sea coast - a beautiful 13th century former Byzantine church of the Komnenos era. It was converted to a mosque during the Ottoman era and then made into a museum in 1935. In 2013 it was decided to be reconverted to a mosque, prompting a much-disputed restoration in which the frescoes were veiled and the floor was covered.  

Regarding the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople, a number of steps have been taken since 2011. An expectation has become engrained in many peoples’ minds that the conversion would happen “one day if Muslims pray enough.” What’s more, due to a perfectly executed live TV broadcast reciting the Quran during the month of Ramadan last year, many people started to think that the conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque had actually already begun. 

Some opponents of the idea are perhaps today hoping for a reaction from UNESCO. In the text of UNESCO’s “Istanbul Declaration on the Protection of World Heritage” it assures that it is aware of the “task entrusted to UNESCO by its Constitution to ensure conservation and protection of the world’s inheritance of monuments of history” and is “mindful of the protection of cultural and natural heritage,” but that was it. There was no word about the use of a museum as a place of worship.

The appointment of a special imam to Hagia Sophia later last year has only confirmed the long-term suspicions about intentions related to the Hagia Sophia. 

This year’s televised ceremony of the last prayers of Ramadan, again inside Hagia Sophia, raised hell between Greece and Turkey, but the show actually started last year. The statement on the issue from UNESCO representative Francesco Badarin, who happened to be in Athens last week, could not be more telling.
“It is not the first time. We have told the Turkish government that the Hagia Sophia must stay as it is and we will tell them again,” he said.