The Hagia Sophia Mosque

The Hagia Sophia Mosque

How does the name sound? Pretty much like Saint Paul’s Mosque in London, or the San Marco Mosque in Venice? What would such names mean to most Muslims? Conquest and justice. What would the al-Aqsa Synagogue or the Sultanahmet Church mean to Muslims? Defeat and injustice. Right? Right. 

Passing by the ruins of the minaret-less, to-be-restored Ottoman mosque on the “high street” of a north Aegean Greek island, I have often wondered what it meant to Greeks. What kind of security threat would it pose to the locals – or to Athens – if it were restored into a museum? Paranoia. Right? Right. Then one day I read this in a conservative Turkish newspaper: “Muslims who visit the island and witness the miserable shape of the mosque, which still carries all possible traces of Ottoman architecture, come close to tears.” Sad? Sad. 

On the (far) eastern side of the “bluest” divide in the world, the Hagia Sophia Church in Trabzon (originally, Trapezounta), built by Manuel I between 1238 and 1263, was converted into a mosque after Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city in 1461. Its frescos were covered in whitewash. In 1964, the church-mosque was turned into a museum to be converted into a mosque once again about a year ago. 

And the Muslim congregation complains, according to another conservative Muslim Turkish newspaper, that “Muslims are being forced to pray ‘in a mosque’ in front of ‘Christian icons and a fresco.’” Muslims, therefore, demand the lifting of restrictions on the destruction of such historical objects at their “mosque.” No one asked why there were Christian objects at a mosque in the first place. 

The Hagia Sophia “Mosque’s” namesake in Istanbul was built in 537, and served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and Seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (except between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire). 

In 1453, Mehmed II the “Conqueror” ordered the cathedral to be converted into a mosque. The bells, altars, iconostasis, sacrificial vessels and other relics were removed from the holy building. Mosaics depicting Jesus, Mother Mary and Christian saints and angels were removed or plastered over; and Islamic features were added to the Orthodox-Roman Catholic-and now Muslim prayer house. In 1935, the Orthodox-Roman Catholic-Muslim prayer house was turned into a museum. Since then, Turkey’s pious Muslims have launched numerous campaigns to open the unfortunate “Orthodox-Catholic-then-Orthodox again-Muslim prayer house-and-now-museum” to Muslim prayers again. 

Most recently, the chief cleric of Istanbul’s historical Sultanahmet Mosque requested that the Hagia Sophia Museum be converted into a mosque. If the cycle is completed, we shall eventually end up having a holy building with “an Orthodox-Catholic-Orthodox-Muslim-museum-and Muslim again” past and present. 

Why would Turkey’s devout Muslims, who enjoy the comfort of a larger number of mosques per 1,000 people than “sharia state” Iran, insist on praying at what was built as a church 1,476 years ago? It’s the childish feeling of conquest. It’s a feeling pretty much like conquering an ancient castle from the enemy, not the pleasure of saying Muslim prayers at an edifice with Christian heritage dating back to the year 537. 

And once again, it’s time for double-talk for Islamists. While the Turkish-language pundits will encourage Muslims to recapture the Hagia Sophia “Mosque,” the neo-Muslim crusaders will be busy shaking their heads in deception and telling the Western audience that this is not good and definitely a corrupt interpretation of modern-day Islam because of x, y and z… 

Some Westerners will buy it, some will not. But for the sake of honesty and realism, the stealth Islamist crusaders who often selectively portray Islam’s liberal face should stop propagating to win the hearts and minds in the more powerful parts of the world and try to convince the average Istanbul Muslim that the name Hagia Sophia Mosque sounds a bit strange. 

I understand that their job is to look pretty to non-Muslims. But sadly, a million column inches they may write with all their admirable intellectual power are exposed to the risk of ending up in the intellectual trash can with just a single act by a real-life, devout Muslim man.