Turkey’s highest court this week convened to decide whether Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia museum can be turned into a mosque. The court’s ruling is likely in two weeks.
The 1,500-year-old structure, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, was originally a cathedral before it was turned into a mosque. In the 1930s, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, shut down the mosque and turned it into a museum in an attempt to make the country more secular.
There have been calls for long from Islamist groups and nationalists in the country to convert the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.
Last year, just days ahead of the local elections, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had said it had been a “very big mistake” to turn the Hagia Sophia into a museum and that he was considering reverting it.
What is the Hagia Sophia?
The construction of this iconic structure in Istanbul started in 532 AD during the reign of Justinian I, the ruler of the Byzantine Empire, when the city was known as Constantinople. The structure was originally built to become the seat of the Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church and remained so for approximately 900 years.
In 1453, when Constantinople fell to Sultan Mehmet II’s Ottoman forces, the Hagia Sophia was ransacked by the invading forces and turned into a mosque shortly after. The structure of the monument was then subjected to several interior and exterior changes where Orthodox symbols were removed or plastered upon and minarets were added to the exterior of the structure. For a long time, the Hagia Sophia was Istanbul’s most important mosque.
In 1934, Atartuk ordered that the Hagia Sophia be converted into a museum. It opened to the public in 1935.
What is the controversy about?
When Erdogan entered politics a little less than three decades ago in Turkey, observers say the status of the Hagia Sophia was not particularly on his agenda. On the contrary, he once objected to the calls to convert it into a mosque. But his rhetoric changed in 2019 during municipal elections in Istanbul that he ended up losing.
The next instance when Erdogan brought up the subject of converting the Hagia Sophia coincided with US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Observers believe that Erdogan’s plans for the conversion of the Hagia Sophia are closely connected with his attempts to score political points more than anything else and perhaps to drum up political support that he has seen diminishing following his loss in Istanbul’s municipal elections last year.
Why is Greece objecting to the conversion of Hagia Sophia?
The controversy surrounding the Hagia Sophia comes at a time when there have been diplomatic tensions between Turkey and Greece over other issues. In May this year, Greece objected to the reading of passages from the Quran inside the Hagia Sophia on the 567th anniversary of the Ottoman invasion of the former Byzantine capital, another instance of disagreement between the two countries regarding the conversion of the Hagia Sophia.
Greece’s Foreign Ministry had issued a statement saying this move was a violation of UNESCO’s ‘Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage’. Greece had said the Hagia Sophia had “been designated a museum of world cultural heritage and is currently being used to promote other purposes”. Turkey responded by saying that Greece’s objections to the reading of passages from the Quran were indicative of its “intolerant psychology”.
According to observers, the view among some within Turkey’s political circles is that the status of the Hagia Sophia is a domestic matter where the interference of “international players” is not welcome.
What is next for Hagia Sophia?
Local news reports suggest that Erdogan has ordered his government to hold prayers at the Hagia Sophia on July 15 to commemorate the four-year anniversary of the 2016 failed coup attempt against his government.
Experts say while Erdogan doesn’t need the courts to decide on the fate of the Hagia Sophia, they believe legal rulings will add legitimacy to his proposals. There has also been little opposition to these plans within Turkey, they say, because religious minorities do not wish to be involved in what is seen as a polarising subject.
Last month, Greece had appealed to UNESCO, objecting to Turkey’s moves on grounds that the conversion would violate international conventions. For its own part, UNESCO too has denounced Turkey’s plans. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the representative of Orthodox Christians, said he was “saddened and shaken” over Turkey’s attempts to convert the Hagia Sophia. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had stated that converting the Hagia Sophia would mean that the structure would not be able to “serve humanity as a much-needed bridge between those of differing faith traditions and cultures”.
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