CONSTANTINOPLE – If Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought he could swoop in and turn Aghia Sophia into a mosque by going under the radar, the global media has locked onto him.
The New York Times has joined outlets such as the Washington Post, Bloomberg, and the Financial Times in covering the Turkish president’s maneuvers and expressing concern if not outrage.
The Times called Aghia Sophia, “…one of the world’s most potent symbols of Christian-Muslim rivalry and of Turkey’s more recent devotion to secularism.”
Spotlighting the strong reactions of world leaders, the paper noted, “President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is making moves to declare it a working mosque once more … threatening to set off an international furor … and set off a chorus of dismay from political and religious leaders as diverse as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church.”
His opponents say Erdogan has called for Aghia Sophia to be made a mosque during all his political crisis, red meat for his nationalist and conservative religious base. This time, however, Erdogan’s political dangers are so severe that observers urge international officials to take his words seriously with his party continuing to stumble in the polls as COVID-19 batters a weak Turkish economy.
A Turkish administrative court ruling on revoking the 80-year old decree that declared Aghia Sophia a museum will be announced within two weeks. Erdogan is then expected to make the final decision.
The reverence expressed by the Times is noteworthy: “Completed in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia stood for nearly a millennium at the heart of the Christian world, crowning the fabled city of Constantinople. It is unsurpassed for its grandeur and immense dome.”
The reporter noted that in 1453, Mehmed II conquered Constantinople and turned The Great Church into a mosque but that after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, “Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern secular republic of Turkey, ended the role of religion in the state and closed religious institutions.” Mosques that were built as churches, including Aghia Sophia, were turned into museums.
But Erdogan’s Islamist supporters who do not feet the reverence of past generations for Ataturk, “speak of the building as the third holiest site in Islam, after the Grand Mosque of Mecca and Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, and insist that once a mosque it should never be unconsecrated.”
Erdogan, coming from a conservative Muslim tradition, has steadily been replacing Ataturk’s ideals with a campaign to revive Ottoman glory.
“At the end of May,” the Times reported, “for the first time in more than 80 years, an imam seated on a carpeted dais before a copy of the Quran” recited a provocative verse.
The recitation upset many around the world.
“The Foreign Ministry of Greece … denounced it as unacceptable and a breach of Hagia Sophia’s status as a world heritage site under UNESCO,” and the Times noted Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, “said the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would disappoint millions of Christians around the world and would divide Muslims and Christians when it had been a place of worship for both … He urged the Turks to honor what he described as their obligation to the world.”
Pompeo called on Turkey, “to respect the diverse traditions and faiths of Turkey’s history and keep Hagia Sophia as a museum accessible to all,” but Erdogan, the Times wrote, “has made it a nationalist issue, lashing out at Greece for interfering in his country’s affairs and insisting that Turkey was proceeding according to the law. ‘Is it you managing Turkey or us?’ he said. ‘Turkey has its own institutions.’”
The loudest opposition in the country seems to be coming from tourist companies and city authorities afraid visitors will be deterred from coming. The Byzantine masterpiece is the most visited tourist site in Turkey – 3.7 million people came in 2019.
Art historians and conservationists are concerned about losing access too.
The Times zeroed on the most painful issue. “The greatest worry is what will happen to the incomparable medieval mosaics, among them depictions of Christ, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, alongside rare portraits of imperial figures including Emperor Justinian I and Empress Zoe, one of the few women to rule in her own right.
The mosaics were whitewashed for the more than five centuries during Ottoman rule – the depiction of the human form being considered idolatry – and were uncovered and restored only after Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum in the 1930s.”
“’We don’t know what will happen to the mosaics and frescos,’ said Faruk Pekin, founder of Fest Travel, which specializes in cultural tours and led 80 nighttime tours of Hagia Sophia last year,” the Times reported, adding that “one of the delights of touring the building at night, he said, was that the dome seems even larger and the gold mosaics gleam more brilliantly in the dim light. Visitors pay double for the nighttime tour, and most of his customers are Turkish, he said. If the museum becomes a mosque, the mosaics will have to be covered during Muslim prayers somehow, including seraphs high up at the base of the dome. Tourists and non-Muslims may be restricted to certain areas, he said. ‘I still hope it will not happen.’”