Written by Shahid A Abbasi
A church-turned-mosque-turned-museum in Turkey has become a mosque again, with regular namaaz beginning last week. To the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it has been an occasion so momentous that he himself stood with hundreds of others before a set of imams in the prayer hall of the erstwhile museum to offer his prayers.
It is after 85 years that a muezzin’s public call to the faithful — the azaan — has been relayed through the minarets of Hagia Sophia. For a myriad reasons, the azaan is causing reverberations way beyond the borders of not only the Hagia Sophia, but of Turkey as well. Its soundbytes are causing waves across the world, providing music for some, a wail for others and a siren call for all. It is a jarring twist to a story that begins 1,500 years ago.
A church was built during 532-537 AD in the capital city of the Byzantine empire — Constantinople — which had been founded two centuries earlier. The Byzantine king, Justinian I, named it “Hagia Sophia”, meaning “sacred truth” or “holy wisdom”. It acquired the distinction of being the world’s largest cathedral of its times, remaining so for nearly a thousand years until being bested by the Saville cathedral in 1520. It also became a symbol of the Christian presence on the meeting ground of Asia and Europe in an era dominated by the Crusades.
In 1204 AD, the Fourth Crusaders sacked Constantinople. The Hagia Sophia was damaged and its riches looted. It was converted from an Eastern Orthodox church to a Roman Catholic cathedral. The Byzantines re-conquered Constantinople 57 years later, in 1261. The Hagia Sophia is reverted to what it was built as — an Eastern Orthodox church.
In 1422 AD, Constantinople survived a siege by the Ottoman Turks. It held on precariously as it had during the previous two major sieges — by the Arabs during 674-678 AD and 717-718 AD. But in 1453, a very young and dashing Mehmet (Mohammad) II laid a 57-day siege around Constantinople and broke the Byzantine resistance and the city fell to Sultan Mehmet. It also marked the beginning of a swift end to the Byzantine empire.
When the triumphant Mehmet rode into Constantinople, he declared a general amnesty. He promised protection to the non-Muslims and to their places of worship. He then proceeded towards the pride of the Christian world — the Hagia Sophia. As he reached its entrance, the enormity of his achievement — taking Constantinople which the earlier Turks and Arabs had failed to achieve for 900 years — overwhelmed him. It also overwhelmed his judgement. He lifted a fistful of soil, hurled it in the direction of the Hagia Sophia, and intoned La ilaha illallah (there is no other God but the almighty God). He then entered the Church and fell into a prostration (sajda) in the direction of Mecca, thanking God. Apparently at that moment, and against his theological training, Mehmet decided to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
During the medieval era when this story unfolded, and earlier, a victor appropriating or destroying places of worship of the conquered was a general practice. For instance, in the same era when elsewhere the rule of Moors (Arab Spaniards) ended in Spain, all mosques, including some of the most exquisite ever built, were converted to churches or appropriated for other purposes. By and by Spain was “cleansed” of Muslims. The pattern continued in Europe right up to 1995 with the massacre of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in a genocide ,which is considered the worst in Europe since the Second World War. In sharp contrast, Mehmet II encouraged everyone from the pre-conquest Constantinople to stay back, assuring them full protection. He built Constantinople as a cosmopolitan city which was soon welcoming and rehabilitating the Spanish Jews who had been expelled as a part of the Catholic Inquisition.
But the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has remained a major blot on the halo of Mehmet II. Mehmet redeemed himself somewhat by preserving the church’s Christian symbols. He even let the statue of the Virgin Mary nursing the baby Christ remain unharmed in the main prayer hall, albeit after getting it covered with curtains so that the believers of a formless God do not suffer indignation at the sight of a God incarnate. Yet the conversion of a church into a mosque, that too of a church as iconic as the Hagia Sophia, has stuck out as one of the ugly bookmarks of history.
In 1935, after the Hagia Sophia had the azaan ringing from its four minarets (which Mehmet had constructed atop the church) for 500 years, the Hagia Sophia witnessed its third conversion. The de-Islamiser of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Pasha, had the structure secularised. He turned it into a museum. The Christian symbols were uncovered while the giant boards carrying the names of Allah, its prophet, the first four Caliphs, and the first two Imams were left where they were. The resulting fusion of Christian and Islamic symbols made the Hagia Sophia a unique structure, silently yet eloquently recounting its history to all those who visited it from across the world. It also became a showcase of secular multiculturalism, which the then-modern world had begun to strive for.
Now the chief of Turkey has put the Hagia Sophia into a rewind mode. So has gone into reverse all that the Hagia Sophia stood for until the other day. After decades of futile hope and posturing to get accepted as a “genuine” European country by the European Union, July 24, 2020, threatens to mark the commencement of its distancing from Europe and its return journey to theocracy. Erdogan has, of course, issued the expected denials but the writing is there on the walls of the Hagia Sophia. He also has obviously handed the right-wingers of all major non-Muslim countries a new excuse and impetus to demonise Islam. One can picture them salivating at this “typical Islamist excess” to justify their own thrusts backwards.
The beginning of the azaan reverberating through the Hagia Sophia has been sold to the people of Turkey as the “hour of glory of Islam”. It may well turn out to be the hour of embarrassment and regret for Islam.
Had Turkey been a progressive, confident, and strong country as President Erdogan would like to project it, it would have either left the Hagia Sophia as a museum, or reverted it to a church. That would have been an hour of glory for the religion Erdogan claims to practise, and wishes to use as a political prop.
The writer is Emeritus Professor, Pondicherry University.
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