Hagia Sophia: An election campaign ploy again?

Hagia Sophia: An election campaign ploy again?

One year later, it is as almost as a déjà vu experience. Turkey is heading for elections, again. 

This time last year we were heading full speed toward a highly important presidential poll – the first through a popular vote – that brought then-Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to the position of president. This year, we find ourselves weeks ahead of yet another critical political hurdle, a general election that will determine which way the Turkish Republic will head: a presidential system – yet to be clearly defined – or remain as it was, a representative parliamentary constitutional democracy. Perhaps the main difference this year is that economic concerns top the list for the electorate.  

The reason why I have this “I have seen this, before” feeling is the following: this year’s Orthodox Easter fell on Sunday, April 12. For the Orthodox faith, the period of Easter is the most important date in their ecclesiastical calendar. But while the Orthodox flock was filling the numerous churches mainly in Istanbul, throughout the week, attending daily mass, the former center of Christianity and then of the Islamic faith again became the center of controversy. As announced by the Turkish authorities and reported all over the media, on April 10, “for the first time, after 85 years, the holy Quran was heard inside Hagia Sophia.” The occasion was a calligraphy exhibition as part of celebrations organized for the 1,444 years since the birth of the Prophet. The event in Hagia Sophia was attended by the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, Mehmet Görmez, the deputy culture and tourism minister, Ahmet Haluk, the governor or Istanbul, Vasip Şahin, other dignitaries and a crowd. 

“The Islamic culture and its history can be read only with love,” said the charismatic Mr.  Mehmet Görmez, who was the first head of Diyanet to visit the Greek Patriarchate in Fener three years ago. Görmez showed extreme importance in giving this year’s calligraphy exhibition a powerful religious message by inviting Ankara Imam Hafiz Ali Tel to read out extracts from the Quran.

However, I am sure that you can recall the atmosphere of this time last year. The rumor that Hagia Sophia might be partially opened as a mosque for “namaz” had been spread by certain Turkish media during the presidential campaign. Although the desire to have Hagia Sophia converted into a mosque was implied originally by Deputy PM Bülent Arınç, several pro-government newspapers claimed that to be a “plot” by the Gülenists to damage Turkey abroad. We also remember that around this time last year, we were listening to “trusted sources” leaking the then-prime minister’s plans to do “namaz” after turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque in the afternoon and evening and museum in the morning by having the Byzantine frescoes “hidden behind curtains” so as to avoid offending Islam. And all that on the anniversary of “Fetih,” the date of the Conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet, on May 29, 1453! 

So, I feel I am watching the same political game acted over a unique architectural masterpiece that belongs neither to Christians nor to Muslims but to humanity as a high moment of human cultural and artistic achievement. Not many modern countries include in their territory such monuments. Most of them try to protect them. Others destroy them for incorrect interpretations of religion or politics. 

Having in mind the recent nightmarish images of the destruction of Nimrud’s antiquities by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), let us try to leave history, art and culture far from our contemporary interests.