Protection, not conversion, should be Hagia Sophia priority

For the umpteenth time in the past dozen years, the issue of whether to re-convert Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque has dominated Turkey-related news in recent days, with the predictable push-and-pull between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islam-embracing pro-conversion camp and those who argue that a Hagia Sophia mosque would sow discord, as opposed to pluralism and understanding.

Turkey’s Council of State bought itself some time on Thursday, saying it would make the decision within 15 days, yet the crucial question regarding conversion may be less about politics, about satisfying this or that religious group or voter base, than about preserving a millennium and a half-old monument for worshippers, tourists and future generations.

“How can we best care for Hagia Sophia?” more than 200 Byzantine and Ottoman scholars from around the world asked in an open letter published on Wednesday. Dr. Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir, research associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s anthropology department, was among the signatories and went into detail on the issue of preservation in an Ahval podcast this week.

Originally a cathedral, Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest building when it was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 537. It was seen as an engineering marvel, renowned for converting awed visitors to Orthodox Christianity mainly because of the vast empty space underneath its iconic dome. Still today tourists tend to be held dumbstruck for a moment or two upon entry.

When Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II conquered Istanbul in 1453, he converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque and issued a deed declaring that any who would use it for other purposes would be damned. Yet in 1934, nearly a dozen years after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic, the council of ministers decided to make Hagia Sophia a museum.

It has since been named a UNESCO Heritage site and emerged as one of Turkey’s top tourist attractions and one of the world’s most iconic structures, beloved by Muslims and Christians the world over, architecture and history buffs and countless fans of human achievement.

Tanyeri-Erdemir pointed out that its museum status is crucial, as it means the Hagia Sophia is managed and maintained by Turkey’s Culture and Tourism Ministry, which has a mission of preserving and presenting monuments to the public. Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia was visited by more than 3 million people last year, which means a great deal of physical stress is being placed on a very old structure.

“For any heritage monument, if it’s used on a daily basis there are risks we have to consider,” said Tanyeri-Erdemir, who has studied the Hagia Sophia for more than decade and is writing a book about it. “When they are museums, there are people who are specifically trained to look after those monuments as they are visited by crowds.”

As a mosque, Hagia Sophia would likely be overseen by Turkey’s Directorate General of Foundations, which most agree would be a step up from the Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, which is more about promoting Islam, specifically the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) favoured form of Islam, than it is about heritage protection.

Still, after restorers began to reveal stunning Byzantine-era mosaics within Hagia Sophia in the early 1930s, it was the Directorate General of Foundations that agreed to hand jurisdiction over to the Education Ministry, the precursor to Turkey’s Culture Ministry, which was better prepared to care for its invaluable treasures.

As the scholars point out in their open letter, the Culture Ministry has been a responsible steward, even while increasingly opening up Hagia Sophia to religious services. It has a room dedicated to Muslim prayer, and for the past four years it has had a full-time imam, regularly sounded the call to prayer from its minarets and offered Quranic readings on holidays and special occasions, such as in May, when an on-screen Erdoğan presided over the marking of the 467th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul.

“In a certain sense, Hagia Sophia is currently functioning as both a museum and a mosque,” the scholars said. “The expansion of this latter function has not resulted in damage to the building or obstruction of its works of art.”

Erdoğan last month pointed out that the 17th century Sultan Ahmet mosque, which sits very close to Hagia Sophia, has for decades been both mosque and tourist attraction, closed during prayer times but open to tourists the rest of the day, and faced no known preservation issues. 

But Sultan Ahmet, or the Blue Mosque, has never been a church. Tanyeri-Erdemir pointed to the Hagia Sophias in Iznik and Trabzon, which the AKP government converted from museums into mosques in 2011 and 2013, respectively. In Trabzon, a set of screens now covers up powerful Byzantine frescoes, while the Iznik structure has reportedly suffered substantial damage.

“The whole infrastructure that protects these two Hagia Sophias was changed,” said Tanyeri-Erdemir, pointing to significant problems with protection once the monuments were taken away from the Culture Ministry.

She said she understood those who seek to respect Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s deed, even while accepting that the Hagia Sophia in many ways encapsulates the fractures within Turkish society and politics.

It is technically a European monument, as it sits on the European side of Istanbul, yet because of the minarets and its role in Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s conquest, it is also a symbol of the East and Islam. Its status could be a nod to Atatürk’s secular vision or to the more Islamic state envisioned by Erdoğan and his backers.

“On the one hand, it is kind of a beacon of secularism and unity. On the other hand, it is a very strong symbol for ultra-nationalists as well as Islamists, going back to symbolising Sultan Mehmet’s conquest,” said Tanyeri-Erdemir. “That conquest was kind of an idea of domination, not only Turkey over the rest of the world, but also Islam over all other religions.”

This is likely why Erdoğan’s AKP, which has the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) as its parliamentary partner, sees conversion as a smart move. The Turkish economy is in deep crisis. Turkey is mired in three or four military adventures abroad.

The AKP suffered several stunning defeats in last year’s local elections and recent polls have Erdoğan getting beaten by his likeliest challenger. Though an Erdoğan-led AKP campaign to re-convert Hagia Sophia failed to win over voters last year, that does not mean it was a bad idea.

“Hagia Sophia has a lot of political power; the discourse of it can help you in politics,” said Tanyeri-Erdemir, adding that once it is actually converted there is no going back. “It’s a silver bullet; you can only do this once...So Erdoğan might be really in need of this at this time in his political career.”

She also wondered whether Erdogan viewed re-conversion as a legacy project, something he has been planning for years and could take great pride in achieving. If it is to be his legacy, then maybe Turkey’s leader would find a way to ensure that a Hagia Sophia mosque would be protected and preserved to the highest standards.

Because the issue of whether Hagia Sophia is a mosque or a museum, or a mosque and a museum (or my preferred solution: mosque on Friday, church on Sunday, museum all other days) is meaningless compared to the issue of whether it remains.

What matters is that it continues to sit majestically on top of that hill, overlooking Istanbul’s Old City, watching the traffic on the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, bearing witness to a millennium and a half of human history, welcoming countless visitors and spurring endless battles between Turks and Greeks, Muslims and Christians, conservatives and progressives.

What matters is another 1,500 years.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.