On Friday, July 24, 15 days after a court ruling converted the historic monument Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the first Islamic congregation prayers were held at the sixth-century architectural marvel. The monument, built as a Greek Orthodox Cathedral has undergone many such “conversions” — each attempting to appropriate the space to its own religio-political ambitions, and each claiming Hagia Sophia as a trophy in sacred geography.
Here in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to lay the foundation stone of the Ram temple on August 5. The temple is to be constructed at the controversial site in Ayodhya where, until December 6, 1992, stood a mosque called Babri Masjid. In a strange but predictable similarity to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, the highest court in India, through a contentious judgement targeted more towards burying the centuries-old hatchet at the expense of dangerous historic precedents, decreed that a Ram temple could be built. Both Erdogan and Modi governments claim to have converted the spaces back to their “original or appropriate state”.
A toxic and vulgar obsession towards history drives these futile attempts at reaching the “original” — as if, the history that these structures imbibe in themselves can be rewritten and erased by offering namaz or by laying the foundation stone of a temple. The official statements from various arms of the government and from supporters of Erdogan’s AK Party in Turkey justified the move as a “reform” and as Turkey’s “historical and sovereign right”. With stark similarities to the narrative of the kar sevaks who demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992, some of the hundreds of Muslims who gathered at the “mosque” to offer prayers expressed their sentiments as the “end of 86 years of longing”.
It is noteworthy that this “longing” was performed in a rather awkward manner. Since Islam prohibits any depiction of human figures — more so the figures of humans considered divine by Christianity — the frescos in the Cathedral were covered with a veil during the prayers. In a demonstration of an unsettling sub-conscious Freudian guilt, the history of thousands of years that the architecture of Hagia Sophia holds was covered up under large pieces of black cloth — metaphorical of the consciousness and the propaganda that Erdogan’s Islamo-fascist government creates and telling of the discomfort with history that such narratives, rather explicitly, showcase.
One should also not forget the spatiality of this performance. Since Hagia Sophia was constructed not as a mosque but as a Greek Orthodox cathedral, the building does not adhere to the Qiblah — the direction of Mecca — in its axial design. The Mihrab and the Mimbar added to one of the niches in the structure stand at an angle to the building’s nave — the central processional gallery of the cathedral. As the pictures of the first prayers came in and as cameras panned across the interiors of Hagia Sophia, one noticed this oblique appropriation of the monument by the current populist discourse in Turkey.
The issues of Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Ram Mandir in India, while being similar in their politics, however, deal with time in different ways from each other. The important question that looms over such conversions is regarding the extent of how long one goes back into history to arrive at the “original” or the “appropriate”.
In the case of Hagia Sophia, this question was addressed by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, when he converted the monument to a museum in 1935. It defined Hagia Sophia as a repository of the many roles that it had played in its lifetime and as a living document for the citizens of modern secular Turkey to understand their past. Sadly, the court ruling that converted Hagia Sophia to a mosque fell to the Islamo-fascist agenda.
The courts and Erdogan’s government define “conversion” using political systems of medieval expansionist warfare. The government characterised the monument with reference to the personal will of the Ottoman conqueror Sultan Mehmed II claiming that since he won the cathedral in war, it remains his property and therefore, what it “should be” is a mosque. It is important to criticise and reject this dangerous and anti-democratic reasoning.
Erdogan, however much he may dream of being the Ottoman Sultan of Turkey and the Khalifa of the Muslim world in the 21st century, is the elected president of a modern nation state. For a modern nation state to recognise medieval expansionist warfare as a means to define its own polity is a blatant subversion of democratic principles. While deciding on the fate of Hagia Sophia, the courts in Turkey went back in time and stopped at the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453, to Mehmed II’s forces and against the fundamentals of a modern secular state, established the political processes of that time as the legitimate point of reference for claiming a structure in the 21st century.
In the case of Ram Mandir in India, mythic times with no historical evidence were taken by the courts as the “original”. The Places of Worship Act, 1991, was an attempt to address the problematic question of the past for India. Passed by the Narasimha Rao government, the Act prohibited the conversion of places of worship from their status as it existed in 1949. It defined a break from the past and created a distance between the secular state and the histories that existed before its own creation. With the dispute at Ayodhya still sub judice, the structure was not covered under the Act. Following the political developments in India, especially since 1992, mythology and faith became the source of determining the claim on sacred geographies in the world’s largest democracy.
As their electoral bases rejoice in this abuse of history, both Erdogan and Modi governments have taken credit for these conversions. Erdogan can pray at Hagia Sophia and Modi can lay the foundation stone of the Ram Temple riding the wave of majoritarianism in their respective countries. The truth, however, remains that neither can arrive at the “original”.
As stated by the historian Eric Hobsbawn in his 1993 lecture at the Central European University in Budapest, the belief that “traditional society” is static and unchanging remains a myth of vulgar social science. Majoritarian governments across the world abuse the notions of history to appeal to their polarised electoral base. The spaces, however, retain the many histories that they have lived. If anything, the impressions of Erdogan and Modi shall also remain engraved on these two sites and that palimpsest of history is the only true nature in which they shall and can exist.
Fahad Zuberi is an independent scholar and researcher of Architecture and City Studies
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