Erdoğan leads prayers at Hagia Sophia

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lead prayers at the Hagia Sophia on Saturday in a symbolic move sending a message to his religious base.

Erdoğan first called on all guests to join him in silence while he recited the first verse of the Quran and dedicated it to the "souls of all who left us this work as an inheritance, especially Istanbul's conqueror.”

The Hagia Sophia, originally a Greek Orthodox cathedral in which many of the Byzantine emperors were crowned, was turned into a mosque by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453 and later became a museum after the founding of the Turkish republic. 

Erdoğan went on to complain about Turkey’s ineffectiveness in promoting its arts and culture and accused those “who were more Western than the West and engaged in a fight against the values of the Turkish nation”. 

“Some of our historical mosques have been turned into museums” he said, pointing out the Hagia Sophia and claiming that “in the period of single party rule in Turkey alone, more than 300 hundred holy places were destroyed” on Istanbul’s historical peninsula.

Turkey was ruled by a single party between 1923, when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the new nation, and 1946 when democratic elections, albeit flawed ones, were first held. The secular values of Turkey’s leaders in this period have come under regular criticism from Erdoğan and others in his party.

Erdoğan said that artists who wanted to produce new works of art for their society were excluded in that period and that this “top-down, repressive, Jacobin understanding” still continues today among some artistic circles. 

Those artists who supported Turkey’s recent military campaign in Syria were also being criticised for this stance, he added. 

“They have said every bad word against our artists who displayed a nationalist stance, who tried to raise the spirits of our soldiers. Those people are no different than neighbourhood bullies. Due to their mentality, they are modern Bedouins,” he said.

Erdoğan noted that they have changed this cultural paradigm in Turkey: “They destroyed, we built. They are still trying to destroy. We are still trying to build,” he said. Erdoğan then recalled the Gezi protests and the dispute on the future of Ataturk Cultural Centre at the time.

“Now we are transforming Atatürk Cultural Centre into one of the world’s best opera venues. Those Gezi protestors also yelled against this. You can yell as much as you want. Rant and rave, (but) we demolished it.”

The Gezi protests started as a peaceful sit-in protest on May 28, 2013 against the cutting down of trees in Gezi Park in Taksim Square, Istanbul. The protests turned into a countrywide revolt after police began assaulting protestors with tear gas and water cannons. For more than two weeks, Taksim Square was occupied by the protestors, whom Erdoğan called “a few looters”. According to reports by human rights organisations, 11 people died and more than 8,000 others were injured in Turkey during the protests.

The Ataturk Cultural Center (AKM) in Taksim Square was among the issues that led the protestors to take the streets during the Gezi protests. The construction of the AKM, one of the icons of Turkish modern architecture, itself has a symbolic cultural value. President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party have come up with various projects for reconstructing Taksim Square which have contributed to the cultural polarisation in Turkey between the seculars and the Islamists. The government first planned to renovate the AKM, but later decided to demolish it and build an opera building. The demolishing of the AKM began in February 2018, while a newly built mosque is being built in the square just across it.

Ironically, in politicising construction in Taksim Square at the heart of Istanbul, Erdoğan himself is following the lead of İsmet İnönü, Turkey’s second president and “national chief” during single-party rule, who commissioned a large number of triumphal statues to be put on the square before losing the 1950 elections, whereupon the statues were scrapped.

Below is a documentary by journalist Can Dündar on the Gezi protests.