Hagia Sophia, a continuous story of schisms
If “well sourced” rumours are confirmed – and we have had them coming thick and fast during the last two days – the saga of Hagia Sophia may reach its legal conclusion on July 10, with the announcement of the Turkey’s High Administrative Court’s decision on the matter. The court may decide to annul the Cabinet’s 1934 decision, which was signed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, to turn the mosque of Hagia Sophia into a world museum. Thus, this ancient architectural masterpiece, which served the biggest monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, from 537 to 1934, may again become a Muslim mosque.
If the information is correct, and the decision of the High Administrative Court opens the way for Hagia Sophia to become a mosque again, that will fill many Turkish Muslims with joy; after all, they have been waiting for so long to “break the chains” of Hagia Sophia and enter the place for free as they do with any other place of their faith.
They deeply believe that this is their own national property, as they conquered it back in 1453 along with the city of Konstantinye. Their great sultan, Mehmet the Conqueror, also made sure this great monument would be secure as his personal property through the foundation he set up in his name. It is a matter of national sovereignty, contemporary Turkish Muslims say. Its conversion to a museum was a “historical mistake,” and now is the time to correct it and allow Hagia Sophia to continue as it was, a great mosque.
That, however, is not the view from outside Turkey. As the issue started gathering momentum this year, especially following the special celebrations organized in front of the monument for the 567th anniversary of its conquest. Christians around the world, Byzantine scholars or simply museum visitors suddenly realized that there was now a real chance that a major architectural landmark in the heart of Istanbul’s famous historical peninsula may radically change its character.
Perhaps we forget how old Hagia Sophia is. It is one of the oldest standing religious structures in the world. It was already operating as a major Christian cathedral for all Christians for around half a millennium before the great East-West Schism between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. It was founded in 537, which means about 1,000 years before St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican. So, it is, in a way, the mother church of Christianity. And you would have expected that the churches that followed after it would have protested any attempt to spoil its tranquillity as a cultural heritage monument.
Most of the reaction, though, against Hagia Sophia opening as a mosque has come from the Eastern Orthodox world. The Catholic Church has chosen to remain silent, although the current pope, Francis, did show an early interest in increasing the links between the Vatican and Eastern Orthodox Christendom after his election to the papal throne in 2013. He forged warm ties with the present ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomeos, in Phanar. He’s also visited Istanbul twice, the first just after his enthronement. And then he returned the following year and paid a double visit to the historic area of Sultanahmet. He first visited the Blue Mosque and prayed with the Grand Mufti and then walked across to Hagia Sophia, thus becoming only the fourth pope in history to do so.
His visit then had been seen as a symbolic gesture toward bridging the differences between the two churches after the dramatic split of 1054. “The beauty and harmony of this holy place, he wrote then in the Book of Honours, may make the soul rise to the All Mighty, source and origin of our beauty.”
It was in that year, 2014, that the discussion over the possible change to the status of Hagia Sophia started to heat up. Turkish officials, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose election as president in August of that year brought the slogan of “breaking the chains of Hagia Sophia” to the political agenda, began hearing more and more calls to reconvert the monument.
It was at that time that Patriarch Bartholomeos made a strong statement against any plans to change the status of the structure. “If it must be returned to religious worship, that can only be for Christian worship,” he said on the eve of a Synaxis, a liturgical assembly of all the Orthodox churches in Phanar.
Referring to the debate about the possibility of Hagia Sophia being turned back into a mosque, he said: “We shall oppose it, and all Christians, be they Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant, shall be with us.”
Six years after that, and with the likelihood of such radical change becoming a reality, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church found support only from the Orthodox leaders of Greece and Russia.