This article was published in our August 10 issue under the title “Hagia Sophia Mosque.”
Last month it was reported that a Turkish court has cleared the way for the historic Hagia Sophia, an ancient Roman church built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, to return to its former use as a mosque. Known as Ayasofya to the Turks, it functioned as a Muslim place of worship between 1453, when the Ottoman armies of Mehmed II, the Conqueror, conquered Constantinople, and 1934, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk turned it into a museum.
Since then this architectural wonder has seen millions of tourists file through its interior, which once echoed with the sounds of Byzantine chant and Muslim prayers but now houses the ancient artefacts of two civilizations and two religions. Because Islam prohibits the presence of images in worship, the status of the building’s Byzantine mosaics, uncovered in recent times, remains uncertain.
This development is consistent with the efforts of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to move his country away from the secularizing Kemalist legacy towards a more Islamic identity.
Father of the Turks
After Turkey’s defeat in the Great War, the victorious allies had planned to partition its remaining territory, creating client states under their domination. But a Turkish military officer had other plans and fought to create a Turkish republic in the Anatolian heartland of the former empire. Mustafa Kemal, later surnamed Atatürk, or father of the Turks, formed an army of nationalists who effectively gained sovereignty over this reduced territory, which was now much more ethnically homogeneous than its predecessor had been.
Kemal imposed an official secularism on the country, banned the wearing of the fez (a symbol of fealty to the former sultan), adopted the roman alphabet for the language, established a mass education system and changed the names of several prominent cities, such as Istanbul and İzmir. Under Kemalist secularism, Islam would play no role in the nation’s public life, with the army jealously guarding it against the incursion of the traditional religions. Turks were encouraged to wear western clothing as of the 1920s, and Turkey began a long courtship with the west, entering NATO in 1952 and subsequently applying for membership in the European Union.
Two things have combined to curb the Kemalist legacy in recent years. First, Turkey’s protracted flirtation with all things western has not been entirely reciprocated. Brussels has held Turkey at arm’s length, reluctant to let it go entirely but even more skittish about embracing it altogether. As Turkey’s population has expanded, it could become the largest country in an enlarged EU – something that makes central European nations, which suffered from Ottoman expansionist policies in the early modern era, nervous at best.
Second, Turkey’s westernized élites, disproportionately concentrated in its major urban centres along the Aegean coast, are gradually being outnumbered by a more traditional population in the Anatolian interior, which form the support base for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP. The AKP, while not a radical jihadist party, is nevertheless more sympathetic to traditional Islam. Four years ago the Turkish military unsuccessfully attempted to oust Erdoğan from power and return the country to its 20th-century Kemalist legacy. Erdoğan’s victory was powerful evidence that Turkey has indeed changed its course.
It’s possible that the authorities will come up with a compromise for Hagia Sophia. The mosaics may be covered temporarily during the Muslim prayer hours but will be visible at all other times for the benefit of the tourists, whose preferences Turkey cannot afford to ignore. However, given my paternal Greek heritage and my Christian faith, I cannot but hope that one day the praises of the God who revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ might again echo through the cavernous space of what was once the largest church in Christendom.