An open letter about the status of Hagia Sophia

(This article originally appeared on Medium, by Friends of Hagia Sophia and was fully republished.)

Dear colleagues,

On July 2, the Turkish Council of State will announce a decision regarding the status of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Multiple learned organizations have expressed concern regarding this news. As scholars of Byzantine and Ottoman art and culture, we write now, not to protest an action that has not yet been taken, but to clarify the concern that we share, on the basis of the information currently available to us.

In our opinion, the central question is not, “Should Hagia Sophia be a museum or a mosque?” The central question is rather, “How can we best care for Hagia Sophia?” In other words, we draw a distinction between function and stewardship. We are concerned that the ongoing dispute over function hinders the development of a management strategy commensurate to the scale of the challenges: preservation of the historical fabric and continued visibility of the works of art of all periods, Byzantine and Ottoman; responsible management of mass tourism; and protection against the threat of earthquake.

From 1453 until 1934, Hagia Sophia served as a congregational mosque, and was administered by a pious endowment (vakıf). After the declaration of the Turkish Republic (1923), jurisdiction over all such entities was assumed by a new government ministry, the Directorate General of Foundations. Hagia Sophia continued in use as a mosque throughout the 1920s, but in 1931 restorers began to reveal the mosaics of the interior. The spectacular success of their work convinced the Turkish Council of Ministers (1934) to transfer jurisdiction over the building from the Directorate General of Foundations to the Ministry of Education.

This change in jurisdiction coincided with a change in function, through which the building was closed to worship. Both jurisdiction and function, however, have continued to evolve. Hagia Sophia is today administered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, as the administrative successor to the Ministry of Education. At the same time, the function of the building has expanded to include increasingly visible expressions of Muslim piety. Since 1991, there has been a room dedicated to Muslim prayer within the complex. Since 2016, Hagia Sophia has been served by a full-time imam, the call to prayer has sounded from the minarets, and Qur’anic readings and prayers have taken place within during the annual observation of Laylat al-Qadr.

Thus, in a certain sense, Hagia Sophia is currently functioning as both a museum and a mosque. As far as we are aware, the expansion of this latter function has not resulted in damage to the building or obstruction of its works of art. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism remains a responsible steward.

At the same time, prominent voices in Turkey have long argued that the transfer of jurisdiction to the Ministry was unlawful. They claim that the Turkish state did not have the right to “secularize” Hagia Sophia in 1934, since pious endowments are perpetual and inviolable. According to this argument, the rightful custodian of the building is the Directorate General of Foundations.

In recent years, the Directorate General has assumed control of other Byzantine monuments and reopened them to Muslim worship. One prominent example is another Hagia Sophia, this one in Trabzon on the Black Sea, whose proper administration has been contested since 2013. An effort to re-open the building to Muslim prayer included construction of an elaborate set of screens to obscure the Byzantine frescoes. Less publicized, but of more lasting harm, was the campaign of restoration carried out by the Directorate General on Hagia Sophia in Vize (Thrace) in 2006, which resulted in substantial damage to the historical fabric of the building.

Our concern is that the current conflict, until now only a “war of words,” could result in similarly careless treatment of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul: that historical and archaeological evidence could be damaged, and works of art concealed.

Hagia Sophia is too beautiful a monument and too precious a historical document to serve as a pawn in regional politics. Successive Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish governments have protected it against the ravages of time and thus maintained its significance not only for themselves, but also for those to come in the future — including all of us. It is a matter of vital concern to us as scholars of Byzantine and Ottoman art and culture that the current Turkish government continue this tradition of responsible stewardship.


[To sign the letter, click here.]

Elizabeth Agaiby, University of Divinity, Melbourne

Panagiotis A. Agapitos, Max-Planck Institute, Frankfurt

Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ

Engin Akyürek, Koç Üniversitesi

Nabil Al-Tikriti, University of Mary Washington

Joseph Alchermes, Connecticut College

Juan Antonio Álvarez-Pedrosa, Universidad Complutense Madrid

Benjamin Anderson, Cornell University

Achim Arbeiter, Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen

Tülay Artan, Sabancı University

Kameliya Atanasova, Washington and Lee University

Marie-France Auzépy, Université Paris 8

Michele Bacci, Universität Freiburg

Heather A. Badamo, University of California, Santa Barbara

Jennifer Ball, City University of New York

Thomas M. Banchich, Canisius College, Buffalo

Charles Barber, Princeton University

Karen Barkey, University of California, Berkeley

Sarah Bassett, Indiana University

Floris Bernard, Ghent University

Patricia Blessing, Princeton University

Elizabeth S. Bolman, Case Western Reserve University

Antje Bosselmann-Ruickbie, Justus-Liebig-Universität, Gießen

Emmanuel C. Bourbouhakis, Princeton University

Ra’anan Boustan, Princeton University

Grigor Boykov, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Sarah T. Brooks, James Madison University

Suna Çağaptay, University of Cambridge and Bahçeşehir University

Averil Cameron, University of Oxford

Merih Danali Cantarella, Wake Forest University

Giancarlo Casale, European University Institute

Sinem Casale, University of Minnesota

Manuel Antonio Castiñeiras González, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Annemarie Weyl Carr, Southern Methodist University

Anne-Laurence Caudano, University of Winnipeg

Michail Chatzidakis, Humboldt University, Berlin

Mehreen Chida-Razvi, SOAS, University of London

Christina Christoforatou, Baruch College, City University of New York

Juan Signes Codoñer, University of Valladolid

Barbara Crostini, Uppsala University

James Crow, University of Edinburgh

Jon C. Cubas Díaz, Georg-August-Universität, Göttingen

Anthony Cutler, Pennsylvania State University

Vladimir Cvetkovic, University of Belgrade

Manuela De Giorgi, Università del Salento

Aitor Fernández Delgado, Universidad de Alcalá

Nathan S. Dennis, University of San Francisco

Stefanos Dimitriadis, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster

Heidemarie Doganalp-Votzi, University of Vienna

Anastasia Drandaki, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Ivan Drpić, University of Pennsylvania

John M. Duffy, Harvard University

A. Asa Eger, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Susanna Elm, University of California, Berkeley

Olga Etinhof, Russian State University for the Humanities

Vera von Falkenhausen, Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”

Mary Farag, Princeton Theological Seminary

Elizabeth Fisher, George Washington University

Vicky Foskolou, University of Crete

Georgia Frank, Colgate University

Peter Frankopan, University of Oxford

Stig Frøyshov, University of Oslo

Ivan Foletti, Masaryk University

Miguel Gallés, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Fani Gargova, University of Vienna

Niels Gaul, University of Edinburgh

Rachel Goshgarian, Lafayette College

Sharon Gerstel, University of California, Los Angeles

Elina Gertsman, Case Western Reserve University

Ludovico V. Geymonat, Louisiana State University

Rossitsa Gradeva, American University in Bulgaria

Susan L. Graham, Saint Peter’s University

Geoffrey Greatrex, University of Ottawa

Heather Grossman, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Christiane Gruber, University of Michigan

John F. Haldon, Princeton University

Susan Ashbrook Harvey, Brown University

Ayşe Henry, Bilkent University

Judith Herrin, King’s College London

Ernest Marcos Hierro, Universitat de Barcelona

Cecily Hilsdale, McGill University

Martin Hinterberger, University of Cyprus

Renata Holod, University of Pennsylvania

Brad Hostetler, Kenyon College

Sergey Ivanov, Russian National Research University — Higher School of Economics

Hugh Jeffery, University of Edinburgh

Elizabeth M. Jeffreys, University of Oxford

Kaelin Jewell, The Barnes Foundation

Mark J. Johnson, Brigham Young University

Catherine Jolivet-Lévy, École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

Jacqueline Jung, Yale University

Veronica Kalas, independent scholar, USA

Ioli Kalavrezou, Harvard University

Gül Kale, Carleton University, Canada

Kevin Kalish, Bridgewater State University

Sophia Kalopissi-Verti, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Ceyda Karamursel, SOAS, University of London

Anna Kartsonis, University of Washington

Armen Kazaryan, Research Institute of the Theory and History of Architecture and Urban Planning, Moscow

Bente Kiilerich, University of Bergen

Young Richard Kim, University of Illinois, Chicago

Dale Kinney, Bryn Mawr College

Holger A. Klein, Columbia University

Tia Kolbaba, Rutgers University

Elias Kolovos, University of Crete

Fotini Kondyli, University of Virginia

Kader Konuk, Universität Duisburg-Essen

Yavuz Köse, University of Vienna

Dickran Kouymjian, California State University, Fresno

Dimitrios Krallis, Simon Fraser University

Klaus Kreiser, Otto-Friedrich-Universität, Bamberg

Carol H. Krinsky, New York University

Derek Krueger, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

B. Harun Küçük, University of Pennsylvania

Maximilian Lau, Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo

Marc Lauxtermann, University of Oxford

Sean Leatherbury, University College Dublin

Jacqueline Leclercq-Marx, Université Libre de Bruxelles

Florin Leonte, Palacký University of Olomouc

Alexei Lidov, Lomonosov Moscow State University and Russian Academy of Arts

Alexander Lingas, City, University of London

Santo Lucà, Università degli Studi di Roma “Tor Vergata”

Byron MacDougall, Brown University

Christopher MacEvitt, Dartmouth College

George P. Majeska, University of Maryland

George Manginis, Benaki Museum

Maria Rosaria Marchionibus, Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale

Moysés Marcos, California State University, Northridge

Sergei Mariev, LMU Munich and JGU Mainz

Vasileios Marinis, Yale University

Dragoljub Marjanović, University of Belgrade

Athanasios Markopoulos, University of Athens

Miodrag Marković, University of Belgrade

Elizabeth Marlowe, Colgate University

Maria Mavroudi, University of California, Berkeley

Andrew Mellas, St Andrew’s Theological College, Sydney

Mati Meyer, Open University of Israel

Leslee Michelsen, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art

Bojan Miljković, Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences

John Mitchell, University of East Anglia

Mihail Mitrea, Newcastle University

Elissaveta Moussakova, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

Emmanuel Moutafov, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

Mikael Muehlbauer, Columbia University

Stelyios Muksuris, Byzantine Catholic Seminary, Pittsburgh

Stephennie Mulder, The University of Texas at Austin

Margaret Mullett, Queen’s University Belfast

Robert S. Nelson, Yale University

Christoph K. Neumann, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

Emily Neumeier, Temple University

Leonora Neville, University of Wisconsin Madison

Galit Noga-Banai, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

William North, Carleton College

Paweł Nowakowski, University of Warsaw

Javier Ortolá Salas, Universidad de Cádiz

Victor Ostapchuk, University of Toronto

Robert G. Ousterhout, University of Pennsylvania

Valentino Pace, Università di Udine

Georgios Pallis, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Stratis Papaioannou, University of Crete

Amy Papalexandrou, University of Texas, Austin

Nassos Papalexandrou, University of Texas, Austin

Maria Parani, University of Cyprus

Glenn Peers, Syracuse University

Bissera V. Pentcheva, Stanford University

Inmaculada Pérez Martín, Instituto de Lenguas y Culturas, Madrid

Arseniy Petrov, Russian State University for the Humanities

Jordan Pickett, University of Georgia

Aleksandr Preobrazhensky, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Chryssa Ranoutsaki, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

Andreas Rhoby, Austrian Academy of Sciences

Meredith Riedel, Duke University

Alexandre Roberts, University of Southern California

Serena Romano, University of Lausanne

Maria Alessia Rossi, Index of Medieval Art, Princeton University

James Ryan, New York University

Adam Sabra, University of California, Santa Barbara

Georgios Salakidis, Democritus University of Thrace

Jaime Vizcaíno Sánchez, Universidad de Murcia

Paula Caballero Sánchez, Universidad de Málaga

Joseph E. Sanzo, Università Ca’ Foscari, Venice

Peter Sarris, University of Cambridge

Oliver Jens Schmitt, University of Vienna

Ellen C. Schwartz, Eastern Michigan University

Mira Xenia Schwerda, Harvard University

Athanasios Semoglou, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

A. Tunç Şen, Columbia University

Nancy P. Ševčenko, independent scholar, USA

Jonathan Shea, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Petr Shuvalov, St. Petersburg State University

Nino Simonishvili, independent scholar, Georgia

James Skedros, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

Dimitrios Skrekas, University of Oxford

Engelina Smirnova, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Svetlana Smolčić Makuljević, Metropolitan University Belgrade

Foteini Spingou, University of Edinburgh

Dimitris Stamatopoulos, University of Macedonia

Tatjana Starodubcev, University of Novi Sad

Alice Isabella Sullivan, University of Michigan

Yasser Tabbaa, retired professor

Alice-Mary Talbot, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Michael Talbot, University of Greenwich

Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, University of Pittsburgh

Rabun Taylor, University of Texas, Austin

Allie Terry-Fritsch, Bowling Green State University

Natalia Teteriatnikov, independent scholar, USA

Baki Tezcan, University of California, Davis

Galina Tirnanić, Oakland University

Hjalmar Torp, University of Oslo

Ida Toth, University of Oxford

Giovanni Travagliato, Università degli Studi di Palermo

Warren Treadgold, Saint Louis University

Ionut-Alexandru Tudorie, St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary

Vessela Valiavitcharska, University of Maryland

Nükhet Varlık, Rutgers University

Maria Vassilaki, University of Thessaly

Tim Vivian, California State University, Bakersfield

Dragan Vojvodić, University of Belgrade

Oleg Voskoboynikov, National Research University, Moscow

Alicia Walker, Bryn Mawr College

Annabel Wharton, Duke University

Elizabeth Williams, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection

Warren T. Woodfin, Queens College, City University of New York

Diana Gilliland Wright, independent scholar, Washington, DC

Ann Marie Yasin, University of Southern California

Nikos Zagklas, University of Vienna

Anna Zakharova, Lomonosov Moscow State University

To sign the letter, click here.