Is culture something to be ‘captured and conquered?’

Is culture something to be ‘captured and conquered?’

As we are heading toward May 29, the debate around the politics of culture or the culture of politics – whichever way you like – is heating up.

May 29 is an important date for world history. It is the date that effectively marks the end of the great Roman Empire, the eastern part of which is known by the historiographers as the Byzantine Empire and lasted more than 1000 years as a Christian state. Its end came with the decisive victory of the invading Ottoman army led by the young Sultan Mehmed, who on that date celebrated his great victory of Islam over Christiandom and declared the city of Constantinople as the capital of his new Ottoman empire, which lasted until its dissolution in 1923.

So May 29 is, for the defeated, a day of Alosis – the “Fall” or the “Capture” – of the City, while for the victors is the day of Fetih – the Islamic Conquest.

At the center of this long, fascinating and dramatic history lies the city of Istanbul, which according to UNESCO’s World Heritage description “with its strategic location on the Bosphorus and historic peninsula between the Balkans and Anatolia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, it has been associated with major political, religious and artistic events for more than 2,000 years.” 

There are not values that many contemporary states can claim as such unique historical and cultural heritage. A glance at the UNESCO List of Sites with Outstanding Universal Value, would show you, for example, that Italy has 49 such sites, Greece 18 and Turkey 11 (with another 54 on the Tentative List). Many other countries have none. And some other countries have lost the ones they had through wars, natural catastrophes or lack of care. And if you look further, into the four fundamental criteria of the UNESCO List, you would see that the reason for Istanbul’s inclusion is that it fulfills all of them. Among them, “its historic areas include monuments of recognized as unique architectural masterpieces of Byzantine and Ottoman periods, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Süleymaniye Mosque complex ...
that through history the monuments of Istanbul have exerted considerable influence on the development of architecture, monumental arts and the organization of space, both in Europe and the Near East ... that the Hagia Sophia became a model for an entire family of churches and later mosques, and the mosaics of the palaces and churches of Constantinople influenced both Eastern and Western art ... and that the city is an outstanding set of monuments, architectural and technical ensembles that illustrate very distinguished phases of human history.”

For reasons that have not been very clear to us, the possible use of the Hagia Sophia, partially as a mosque for “namaz” (Muslim prayer) has recently been thrown into the heated debate about the upcoming presidential campaign. Although the desire to have the Hagia Sophia converted into a mosque was implied by the Vice Premier Bülent Arınç back in November last year – i.e. before the Dec. 17, 2013 events – the same argument has been resurfacing during the past few days as a “plot” by the Gülenists to promote its reopening as a mosque and at the same time to organize an anti-Turkey campaign abroad if such decision was to be made. On top, we had an official proposal for a bill in the Grand National Assembly by an independent deputy-former Justice and Development Party (AKP) member – and a reaction from a Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy who reminded us that the Hagia Sophia is the “symbol of Fetih” and that every independent country should decide for itself what it wishes to close or open. If Turkey is an independent state, the orders and pressure from the West should not be accepted. Let them not accept us in the EU, he says.

I have no idea how this argument will end. If politics take such a dangerous turn, then culture may become a matter of “Capture and Conquest” for a unique historical and religious monument which, since it was made into a museum in 1935 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, it became available to the whole humanity.

The Hagia Sophia Museum has been inscribed on the UNESCO Heritage List since 1985, but under the condition that the Turkish state will protect and use the monument in accordance with the principles of the World Heritage Convention and related international documents. And according to ICOMOS, UNESCO’s advisory body, any decision for the change of use must be made with consideration of the use at the time of its inscription on the list, “with a holistic approach and thorough consultation with UNESCO ... An approach to the contrary would call in question the World Heritage status of the site.”
Please note the term “holistic.” It is the key which can resolve any such dispute.