On July 10, 2020, Turkey’s top administrative court gave its long-awaited verdict, clearing the way for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to change the status of the world-renowned Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque. It satisfied the demand of the religious groups, a powerbase for Erdogan, who have been asking for the restoration of its status as a mosque for the past sixteen years. Mr. Erdogan announced that the first prayer in the newly restored mosque would be held on July 24.
However, not everyone is pleased with the decision. Opposition has come from some western powers, especially the US, Russia, and Greece; both of the latter countries have predominantly orthodox Christian populations. Within the country itself, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, a spiritual leader of the Eastern Orthodox Church, is quoted as saying “the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would disappoint millions of Christians around the world.” Turkish Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk commented that “there are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this move, but their voices are not heard.”
The Hagia Sophia, a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, was originally built between 532 and 537 on the orders of Justinian I, the Eastern Roman emperor (527 to 56 AD), and remained the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years until the Grand Cathedral at Seville, Spain, built in 1520, dwarfed it. The status of Hagia Sophia arouses powerful emotional responses in both Muslims and Christians. Constantinople, that had been the citadel of Eastern Orthodox Christianity for centuries, fell on May 29, 1453, to the formidable forces of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. The historic conquest is attributed largely to the Ottoman Sultan’s strategic brilliance and exceptional leadership skills.
After his momentous victory, the Sultan, barely 21-years old, delayed his ceremonial entry into the city until the afternoon. In his authoritative book, The Ottoman Centuries, (1977), Lord Kinross has provided some fascinating accounts of the Sultan’s majestic entrance into Hagia Sophia: “Escorted by his bodyguard of Janissaries and followed by his ministers, he rode through the streets, straight to the church of Hagia Sophia. Dismounting on the threshold, he stooped down and with oriental symbolism, picked up a handful of earth which he poured over his head as an act of humility to God.” He ordered the immediate release of priests and some city dwellers who were cowering in fear in the Cathedral and stopped any pillaging of the city. He then proceeded to offer his prayers and directed that the cathedral be turned into a mosque. A few alterations were made to the building necessitated by its new role as a mosque, such as the addition of minarets on four sides. The first prayers at the Ayasofya mosque were led by Sheikh Aksemseddin, a mystic and the Sultan’s spiritual guide.
According to legend, the Sultan emerged from the magnificent cathedral, and rode through the deserted streets of the desolate city, once the pride of the whole of Christendom, and witnessed the ruined imperial palace of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, who was killed in the battle. Powerfully moved by these sights that underscored the fleeting nature of temporal power and splendor, he recited the famous verses of Saadi Shirazi:
“The spider weaves his web in the palace of the Caesars; the owl sings her watch song on the towers of Afrasiab.”
A highly accomplished and enlightened ruler, the Sultan swiftly moved to rebuild the city as the new capital of his realm. He appointed a new Patriarch of the Greek Church and directed that along with the Ulema, there should reside in the city the Greek and Armenian Patriarchs as well as the Jewish Rabbi. He granted them the freedom to manage their own affairs without interference from him. While generous and pragmatic, he was also ruthless in dealing with those who displeased him.
Hagia Sophia functioned as a mosque continuously for nearly five hundred years during which time countless influential grand viziers offered their early morning prayers before walking to nearby Topkapi Palace by the Bosporus to join the Sultan’s Council. However, its status changed in 1934, some 85 years ago, when the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, decreed that it be converted into a museum. Hagia Sophia soon became one of the most visited museums in Turkey and was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO.
Ataturk exercised absolute authority, not seen since the days of the early Ottoman Sultans, and his decree incited no effective opposition from the clergy. He had been solely responsible for saving the country as it exists today. After defeat in the First World War, Turkey was on the verge of disintegration. The victorious allied powers were planning to partition the country among themselves. Large swaths of it were under foreign occupation by Greeks and others, while the capital, Constantinople, was occupied by British and other European forces. Ataturk organized a resistance force from among the defeated and demoralized Turks and drove foreign troops out of the country. He successfully forged a modern, secular, and democratic republic from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
The story of Hagia Sophia, its conversion and reconversion from cathedral to mosque is reminiscent of a parallel situation at the western edge of the European continent. The storied Cordoba mosque, in Andalucía, Spain, was built in 784 by the first Umayyad ruler of Cordoba, Abd ur Rahman I. It is said that the Abd ur Rahman personally participated in the construction project, hauling bricks and other building material. Built on the site of an old Visigoth church, initially Muslims and Christians shared the space, but later the Amir purchased the other half from Christians. The mosque was extended by Hisham, his pious son and largely completed in 793. Later rulers continued to add to the building, making it a marvel of early Moorish architecture. According to cotemporary chronicles, “the pulpit was constructed of ivory and wood, with 36,000 separate panels, many were studded with precious stones and fastened with gold nails.”
In 1236, following years of decline, Cordoba was captured by King Ferdinand III of Castile, and the grand mosque converted into a Catholic cathedral. Major alterations, all unsightly, were subsequently made by the permission of King Charles V (1500-1558), who had never visited the monument. When he finally came to visit, he was offended by what he saw, famously exclaiming: “You have destroyed something unique to build something commonplace.”
Many centuries have passed since the Cordoba mosque was converted into a cathedral and the Hagia Sophia Cathedral was first turned into a mosque. However, Muslims around the world have never forgotten the Cordoba mosque, and the nostalgia has not abated over the centuries. Similarly, Greek Orthodox still wistfully remember their beloved Byzantine Cathedral at Constantinople. Both communities cling to the forlorn hope that one day their monuments will be restored to them. Alas, neither is likely to see the dream realized.