On 10th of July, Turkish highest court has repealed a council of ministers decision back from 1934 that converted the historic Hagia Sophia Mosque into museum. The move was not unprecedented since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his view several times as to the opening of Mosque for daily prayer and returns its previous status. After the presidential decree, following the court’s decision, thousands of Turks gathered in front of Hagia Sophia to celebrate its reopening as a Mosque and welcomed the decision with their tearful eyes.
The historic building was constructed in Constantinople, then Byzantine capital city, in 537 AD by emperor Justinian to be served as a cathedral. Over the time, the structure became the symbol of Political Power, Unity and Religious faith of Byzantine and Orthodox sect of the Christians. The enthronement ceremonies of the Byzantine emperors used to be held in this church. Since then the Hagia Sophia became more political symbol than just a cathedral. During fourth crusade, The Sack of Constantinople occurred in April 1204 by Latin Catholic crusaders. Crusader army captured, looted, and destroyed parts of Constantinople and converted the Hagia Sophia cathedral into a Catholic church. After the capture of the city, the Latin Empire was established and Latin emperor Baldwin I was crowned as the ruler of Constantinople in the Hagia Sophia. Latin crusaders’ occupation seized the city for 57 years till the Byzantine emperor Michael Palaiologos liberated the city from them in 1261.
In April 1453, Ottoman sultan Fatih Muhammad started campaign to conquer Constantinople. The Byzantine emperor Constantine chose to fight instead of surrendering the city and making truce, the options that were proposed to him by sultan Muhammad Fatih. After about two months of seize, a series of battles and heavy loss in both sides, the Ottomans conquered the city on 29 May, 1453.
Sultan Muhammad performed his Friday prayer in the Hagia Sophia three days later after conquering the city. The new city and its structures had been property of the new ruler as it was of the previous one. Considering the Hagia Sophia as the political and imperial symbol of Byzantines, Sultan instituted decree to convert the opponent’s political power house into mosque to show the Ottoman political superiority. The construction was being served as a Mosque since then till 1934, when the founder of Turkish Republic Mustafa Kamal Pasha turned the mosque into a museum which obviously was a move to establish the new republic’s secular intellection. But the question is whether he or his successors accounted the public demand regarding the issue.
Public demand of giving back the Hagia Sophia its previous status of a Mosque is not new. Recently, an Istanbul based NGO, The Permanent Foundations Service to Historical Artifacts and Environment Association, had filed a petition at the Council of State seeking annulment of the decision of converting the Hagia Sophia into a museum. The court heard the parties’ arguments at a hearing on 2nd July before issuing its final ruling.
According to the court’s full ruling, Hagia Sophia was owned by a foundation established by Ottoman sultan Muhammad Fatih, who conquered the city in 1453 fighting Byzantine force and achieved the power of the city as well as it’s constructions. Despite of having no truce between the Ottomans and the Byzantines, Sultan Muhammad protected the new subjects’ religious rights. Hagia Sophia’s political importance was not like an ordinary infrastructure. It was conquered and later was presented to the community as a mosque.
The decision said that in its title deed, Hagia Sophia was defined as a “Mosque” and this cannot be legally changed. It was also mentioned in ruling that the council of ministers defied the democratic demand on the issue of Hagia Sophia in 1934 which will be rectified by the conversion into mosque.
While the Turkish president is being hailed in and outside of Turkey; many, specially the Orthodox christian community, around the world are resenting the decision of converting the museum to mosque. Well, the president went ahead with the plan despite appeals from NATO ally the United States with which Ankara has forged military and economic alliance. The World Council of Churches wrote to president Erdogan expressing “grief and dismay” over the move and urged him to reverse his decision.
In a quick response archbishop Hilarion, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church’s department for external church relations, expressed his sorrow. “It is a blow to global Christianity … For us [Hagia Sophia] remains a cathedral dedicated to the Saviour,” he told in an interview with the state controlled TV Rossiya24.
On the contrary, in an interview given to Russian news agency Interfax, Russia’s Deputy Foreign minister Sergey Vershinin expressed the Russian government’s view over the issue and says, “In general, we assume that this is Turkey’s domestic matter which neither us nor anyone else should meddle in, obviously. At the same time, we note the value of the building as a site that is part of global culture and civilization,” he said, according to the reports. Greece swiftly condemned the move as a provocation, while France also expressed disappointment.
In response of such argument raised by several communities and groups, in a televised address to the nation, Turkish president Erdogan has declared his support for secular outlook. “I underline that we will open Hagia Sophia to worship as a Mosque by preserving its character of humanity’s common cultural heritage. ….It is Turkey’s sovereign right to decide what the building would be used for”. Rejecting the idea that the decision would prevent different faiths from coming together, he said: “Like all of our other Mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be open to all, locals or foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.”
Thinking the issue athwart of the tide, we may confront some ambivalence created by some critics. Greece, claiming them as the heir of Byzantine era, has criticized Turkey for reopening Istanbul’s historic Hagia Sophia as a mosque, the situation of Ottoman era monuments in Greece point the finger towards Greece. Around 10,000 historic Turkish-Islamic monuments either are being shut down or used for other purposes. Some mosques were converted into churches through renovations while others were used as bars or movie theaters for “adult” films. The fate of Turkish-Arab-Islamic structures has been same in Balkans and Spain. Though it was mentioned in the truce that no religious structures would be revised or demolished, the army of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella did demolish in the same way in 1492 AD.
Built in 1468 in Thessaloniki, Hamza Bey Mosque was used as a place of worship for a while after Ottoman era. In the following years, the minaret of the mosque, made of cut stone, was destroyed, the pencil works on the dome and the writing plates were removed, and the interlocking wooden pulpit inside was destroyed. The mosque was later sold and was divided into a shop and a cinema which was used for showing adult movies until the 1980s.
The Faik Pasha Mosque in the city of Narda (Arta) in the Ioannina region was turned into a church in 1923, which later was abandoned and at the end ruined. On the other hand, mosques and historical buildings like Yeni mosque, Cizderiye Mosque, Fethiye Mosque, Domed mosque, Huseyin Efendi Dervish Lodge and other structures in many important cities, including the capital Athens, Ioannina, Giannitsa, Crete, Larisa and Kavala have shared the same fate. Despite Greece’s treatment to the historic monuments, can Greece ask for the Turkish government to take back the decision regarding Hagia Sophia?
President Erdogan’s decision has not been gone through unchallenged in Turkey too. Nearly 32 percent of the population thinks the move is designed to divert attention from the current economic crisis and will politically be benefited in case of a possible snap election, according to Turkish pollster MetroPoll. While around 39 percent believe it is motivated by a national or religious desire to return the museum back into a mosque, according to the poll.
The probability of political issue being the motive isn’t anything out of the blue. In Istanbul Mayoral election held in June 2019, Erdogan’s AK Party’s candidate Binali Yildirim faced defeat against secular CHP party’s candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Such defeat in Istanbul, no wonder, was a tremendous shock. It also brought the fact in front that the popularity of president Erdogans’ AK Party deteriorated in a significant portion among the population of the city. The move regarding Hagia Sophia is being considered by some as an ultranationalist move which may help Erdogan to get the supporters level raised.
Whatever the reasons are, it is obvious that Turkey have to face problematic consequences by the ultranationalists of the Europe due to this move. No wonder, Turkey will be willing to grab more crucial role in middle-eastern and north-African geopolitical grounds as well as it will look for friends among its neighbors to face the situation. To pave the way for its friendship with internationally recognized government of Libya (GNA) Turkey has signed military pact with GNA government.
It’s a fact that the move from the Turkish president has been taken in such a time when the world is fighting against “covid-19” and the Europe, specially, isn’t prepared to go for a counter measure regarding the issue. Besides, it should be good to keep in mind that the move has come just after a few months of five stakeholders’ (Greece, Egypt, Cyprus, Lebanon and General Haftar of Libya’s rebels) attempt to make a deal regarding boundary and resources of Mediterranean Sea.
In an interview with the Zionist affiliated newspaper Makor Rishon, deputy prime minister of the rebel government in eastern Libya Abdel Salam Al-Badri who is loyal to General Haftar, called on Israel to join a maritime cooperation agreement between Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Lebanon. Al Badri confirmed that “they have never been, and never will be, enemies of Tel Aviv.” The interview was published on June 12, 2020 just a few days earlier of the Turkish decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a Mosque again.
This agreement can pose a threatening role to both Turkey and its ally Libyan GNA government. Haftar’s army has been wiped out in western shore and being pressed every day to east. Recent statement from Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has made it clear that the next goal for the Turk-Libya allied force is Sirte and Al Jufra which are strongholds of Haftar’s army.
In response, Haftar’s rebel parliament has called the Egypt for military intervention in Libya. But, Egypt is not in the situation to intervene militarily since its lifeline- the Nile (river) has been in threat due to Ethiopian dam project. It’s obvious that Egyptian government will prefer to solve the issue with Ethiopia rather than engaging in Haftar’s war. It won’t be exaggerated if it’s said that Turkey has calculated this too while taking the decision. If Egypt is being engaged in both cases i.e. Libya and with Ethiopia, she could not balance both sides and she will cost huge loss. If they do not be engaged in Libya, GNA (along with Muslim Brotherhood) government will be threat for Egypt, if being engaged it will also be devastating for them. They would face the same situation regarding Nile Dam project of Ethiopia. If engaged in any or both cases, it would cause internal political disturbance which would also be devastating for the military government. So, in all situations, nothing is in favor of the Egyptian Military Government.
Hagia Sophia issue, undoubtedly, will be a turning point in the history. Many fear that it will be a benediction for far right nationalist across Europe which will in turn be fuel for so called “war on terror” and “anti-immigrant movements”. But, when the “them” identity is created “us” identity must not be silent according to Huntington. This “Us vs Them” clashes of identity and civilization may make the political ideology of Islam stronger in Balkans, Mediterranean, Europe, Middle east and perhaps in the whole “world”. The rest depends on time.
The author is an independent analyst of national and international politics