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AUGUST 2020

Mosques, Museums and Politics: The Fate of Hagia Sophia

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Mosques, Museums and Politics: The Fate of Hagia Sophia

ILLUSTRATIVE IMAGE

Submitted by Dr. Binoy Kampmark

When the caustic Evelyn Waugh visited the majestic sixth century creation of Emperor Justinian, one subsequently enlarged, enriched and encrusted by various rulers, he felt underwhelmed.  “‘Agia’ will always win the day for one,” he wrote of Istanbul’s holiest of holies, Hagia Sophia, in 1930. “A more recondite snobbism is to say ‘Aya Sofia’, but except in a very sophisticated circle, who will probably not need guidance in the matter at all, this is liable to suspicion as a mere mispronunciation.”

In a somewhat cool reaction, Waugh struggled to reconcile the pop mythology, at that point elevated by celebratory brochure and tourist packages, with the sight of it. “We saw Agia Sophia, a majestic shell full of vile Turkish fripperies, whose whole architectural rectitude has been fatally disturbed by the reorientation of the mihrab.”

Such snobbery could not impeach the historical pedigree of Hagia Sophia.  Seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, religious edifice of the Byzantine Empire, it became a mosque once Constantinople was successfully captured by the Ottoman forces of Mehmet II in 1453, officially terminating the vestigial remains of the Eastern Roman Empire.  This was a function the structure served till 1934, when the secularist ruler Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ordered its conversion to a museum.  Doing so served to secularize and neutralise a site of religious jostling.

That said, the 1934 decision could hardly be seen as a mark of pure benevolence.  It was a year when Turkification policies were being applied with gusto, best characterised by Settlement Law of 1934 (Law No. 2510).  It was an instrument designed to resettle (or not, in some cases) populations within the state into three zones with a focus on concentrating Turkish populations in some areas, while relocating and resettling populations “whose assimilation into Turkish culture is desired.”

That same year, pogroms against Jews in Eastern Thrace also took place to resolve, in the evocatively sinister words of İbrahim Tali, inspector general of Thrace, the “Jewish problem”.  The Jews, he argued, had not Turkified themselves with sufficient rigour.  They were also economically advantaged while disadvantaging Muslims in lending them money at high rates of interest.

The museum status of the edifice has had its fierce detractors.  The poet Necip Fazil Kisakürek described it in 1965 as “a sarcophagus in which Islam is buried.”  Under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hagia Sophia has been sporadically threatened with a change of status.  In 2004, the Turkish Union of Permanent Vakifs of Historical Monuments and Environment issued a plea to the government to change the standing of the building.  It was politely ignored.  In 2005, the Union petitioned the country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, to return Hagia Sophia back to its standing as a mosque.   Ever persistent, that same body sought relief in the Constitutional Court, an application that was rejected in 2018.

In November 2013, deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç expressed the view that the approach of treating former mosques as museums was due for revision.  He did so like a mystic, claiming that the structure was speaking to the Turkish state in mournful longing.  “We look at this forlorn Hagia Sophia and pray to Allah that the days when it smiles on us are near.”  Despite stirring up a fuss with the secularists and irate voices in Greece at the time, he had reason to be confident, given the abolition of the museum status of the Hagia Sophia in both İznik and Trabzon.  In both cases, the General Directorate of Pious Foundations, overseen by Arinç, were active and eventually successful.

The effort to de-museum Hagia Sophia have tended to receive billowing encouragement with undesired remarks in foreign quarters about Turkish policies, past and present.  Demagoguery is ever on the permanent hunt for excuses.  In 2015, Pope Francis chose April to use a word illegal in Turkish law to describe the treatment by Ottoman forces of Armenians a century prior.  The deportations, massacres and rapes constituted, in an address by the Pope at a Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, “the first genocide of the 20th century”.  To conceal or deny “evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”

The remarks had their shaking effect in Ankara.  Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu dismissed the statement, “which is far from the legal and historical reality”.  It was not for religious authorities “to incite resentment and hatred with baseless allegations.”  Domestically, eyes turned to the status of Hagia Sophia.  The mufti of Ankara, Mefail Hızlı, saw a change as imminent.  “Frankly, I believe that the pope’s remarks will only accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be reopened for [Muslim] worship.”  That same month, the first recitation of the Quran for 85 years was made by Ali Tel, imam of the Ahmet Hamdi Akseki Mosque in Ankara.

The wheels were in motion and reached a terminus with the conclusion by the Council of State that “the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally.”  The 1934 decision ending the building’s “use as a mosque and defined it as museum did not comply with laws.”  A delighted Erdoğan rushed off the decree to the state’s religious affairs directorate enabling the reopening of the structure as a mosque.  The decree was celebrated by AK members in parliament.

As with many sites of religious contestation, conquest comes with grievance and hot tears of indignation.  The Russian Orthodox Church, through spokesman Vladimir Legoida, expressed the view that “millions of Christians had not been heard.”  The “need for extreme delicacy in this matter were ignored.”  UNESCO’s World Health Committee is planning to review the status of Hagia Sophia, claiming it “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog or notification beforehand”.

Erdoğan’s concerns lie elsewhere.  He has had little truck with ecumenical politics and practises, battering down the secular divides within his country.  His agenda is that of an up-ended Attatürk.  As Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy remarks, “Just as Attatürk ‘un-mosqued’ Hagia Sophia 86 years ago, and gave it museum status to underline his secularist revolution, Erdoğan is remaking it a mosque to underline his religious revolution.”  The ancient monument of emperors and sultans promises to be a stage of much self-promotion, with the court decision coming in time for prayers to take place on July 15, the date marking the failed coup attempt.

To keep matters interesting, the Turkish president is remaining oblique on what will happen to the tourist trade.  (Last year, 3.7 million ventured to the edifice.)  Spokesman İbrahim Kalın has told the Turkish news agency Anadolu that, “Opening up Hagia Sophia to worship won’t keep local or foreign tourists from visiting the site.”  Capitalism and finance are often near neighbours of holiness and spirituality.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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  • ΠΑΡΜΕΝΙΩΝ

    For many centuries, religions have always been a tool for many leaders. And let us not forget that Muhammad, the conqueror who conquered Constantinople at the end of his life, died as Christian….and this is confirmed by several Turkish historians.. Also one of the largest mosques in Istanbul of Bayezid II was built by a Greek architect named Attik Sinan. In which Muhammad gave him the Church of Panagia Mouchliotissa in honor of his Mother.Let us not forget that the mother of Mohamed Mara Brankovic (Greek-Serbian) was a Christian.

  • hvaiallverden

    Muslims, what muslims, Islam, what Islam, the present Turdia is no more Muslims than I am Santa, witch means they are bigots and scumbags, justifying theft and rewriting history and Islam to fit their agenda, and the truth is, they can claim to be whatever they want, the Turds, but one thing is crystal clear, they will never be, nor is, and havent been, Muslims, the one following the teachings of Muhammed, erDOGan is an delutional scumbag and nothing else an corrupted evil rat.

    But then again, what can you expect from so called Muslims this days, when the mayority is just lying faking rotten bigots, like the equally spectaculare evil Moronikans whom calls them self Christians.
    Both religions have been raped and deprived completely from the teachings of both prophets, they are to day just an joke, I cant even belive me eyes, the level is so low its unbelivable and my next question is, do this mofo read anything, huh, like the Noble Quran, I bet non of this scums whom says something actually knows what the bloody hell they are talking about, and that goes to them both, Christians and Muslims.
    I dont need to elobrate this further, I leave the statements about the obligations in Islam and what an true Muslim should do and be, to the prophet Him self, an letter written by Muhammed, and do read this, “muslims”.

    http://thehigherlearning.com/2014/08/16/did-you-know-muhammad-wrote-a-letter-guaranteeing-the-protection-of-christians/

    peace

    • Wizzy

      Dude, the Muslims who have compromised their values are the ones in bed with the Zionist establishment i.e the Saudi establishment, General Sisi and the many other hypocrites. Erdogan has shown he has a spine and for that he has my respect. I may not agree with all his policies but he stands up whenever he has to. The Hagia Sophia returning to the status of a mosque is of no harm to anybody, tourists will still visit.

      • Ronald

        Returning the Hahia Sophia to a mosque, is a slap across the face of Orthodox Christians, and generally Christians everywhere. Tourism just died in Turkey.

        • Harry Smith

          What tourism? Do you really think that bitches in a search for a good f*ck are really care about Hagia Sofia or Christianity?

      • Harry Smith

        In Quran is written that is haram for Muslims to be allies of Christians or Jews if Christians and Jews are allies of each other. So don’t tell me that Turks are Muslims until they are in NATO.

  • Garga

    I wonder what Erdogan hopes to benefit from it? He does nothing unless there’s a clear and proven benefit to it for him. He is MB because MB was a springboard for him to jump higher in the race for power. He is still in MB because of the backing of their vast network, not to mention the money that comes from it.

    He tries many stunts to consolidate his position as a global leader for Muslims and I see this last one as one of the stunts. There’s no shortage of mosques in Turkey and normally there won’t be many worshipers who go to Hagia Sophia from afar to pray. Most of them go the mosques in their own neighbourhoods, unless there’s something extra-ordinary (like Eid), which they had a place for that and could do whatever they did so far.

    He does anything if it helps him to gain more recognition globally (from Sunni Muslims) and use it in Turkey’s internal politics to stay in power. He is mixing pan-Turkism with his own version of Islamism and that combination is bad news for their every single neighbour, including us.

    If only he was independent or a patriot, maybe it was less painful for everybody else. We could say what he does, he does for his country but most of his work is in complete harmony of the Zionists, despite his loudmouthing against them.

    • Free man

      “complete harmony of the Zionists,” – It’s called an obsession. You guys are able to put the name “Israel” / “Zionists” into every subject. Even though Erdogan’s announcement in Arabic says this move is a prelude to the liberation of Al Aqsa.
      I think this is a historic mistake by Erdogan. He is about to pass the critical load of shit he feeds his neighbors and the rest of the world. And that shit will explode in his face.

  • Tommy Jensen

    The Roman Empire didnt build Crhistianity and Hagia Sophia so Erdogan could sacrifize Jesus two times.

    Hagia Sophia was build to show Christianity’s wealth and power from Rome, Venezia, City of London, and bring freedom to the savages and genociders of the Ottomans.

    We will be back and Erdogan knows it!! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/fdb7bdd43efe288fa8b2f01f41273413495734bd86652be2da6e5d43ed0a728b.jpg

  • ΠΑΡΜΕΝΙΩΝ

    Hagia Sophia will be the first mosque in the world that muslims pray under the picture of Virgin Mary!
    Byzantine legacy is too great in time that a poor dictator like little Erdy can’t erase it, as much as he tries.
    Let them bounce and pray!
    Pray to Virgin Mary, go on!

    https://pbs.twimg.com/media/EclWTQCXsAIUzIe?format=jpg&name=small