The fate of İstanbul’s Hagia Sophia an omnipresent concern - analyst

İstanbul’s Hagia Sophia, which currently functions as a museum, has long-survived rival religious agendas and continues to serve as a vehicle for competing civilisational chauvinisms, wrote Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, in Apollo Magazine.

Constructed 532-537 C.E., the Byzantine Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) was a church for almost a millennium before being transferred into a mosque for almost five centuries.  

While it has remained a museum over the past 85 years, how much longer it will stay one remains to be seen, Danforth wrote, with Turkish Islamists and conservative nationalists eager to reverse the decision.

Hagia Sophia most recently made news following the March 15 Christchurch attacks, when the perpetrator referred to its status as a mosque in his manifesto. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was threatened in the text, responded quickly, saying that Ankara would rename the historic structure as a mosque.

“Unfortunately, Hagia Sophia’s history and grandeur have made it irresistible to competing civilisational chauvinisms, turning the building into a symbolic prize for those who are more interested in possessing it than worshipping in it. Strikingly, in the Islamophobic or anti-Western rhetoric of Christian or Islamic radicals respectively, claiming the Hagia Sophia is transformed into a protective measure. Turkish Islamists have consistently presented Hagia Sophia‘s conversion into a mosque as a necessary warning to hostile Christians who supposedly covet Turkish territory,’’ Danforth wrote.

Similarly, a handful of white nationalists in the West, view seizing the site as a means of ‘’stopping the supposed Muslim takeover of Europe and America.’’

Some analysts have suggested the building be used for multiple purposes: Muslims can pray in Ayasofya on Fridays, Christians on Sunday and museum-goers enjoy the site for the rest of the week, the article highlighted.

Such a solution seem highly unlikely, however, what might be lost in Hagia Sophia’s next transformation is pressing issue, Danforth said.

Following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of İstanbul, the Byzantine mosaics of the church were simply plastered over while the structure underwent its transformation into a mosque.

In the 20th century, Danforth highlighted, conservative historian İbrahim Hakkı Konyalı boasted the buildings minarets were saved from destruction by fooling an uninformed museum administrator into believing their removal might bring down the whole dome.

The Turkish government has made a name for itself for stripping historic buildings of all beauty and historic character in overly aggressive restorations, the article underlined, noting that Hagia Sophia appears better prepared to endure the next round with dignity than certain world political leaders.