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The Future of Turkey and Aghia Sophia in April-May 1919

The Turkish president, Erdogan recently reopened the Aghia Sophia as a mosque, which has angered Orthodox Christians throughout the world. The Great Church – Megali I Ekklesia – is listed as a world heritage site under UNESCO. I asked myself whether the future of Aghia Sophia was a controversial issue at the time of the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.

Delving into my archive, I found four interesting documents that detail different British views on the future of Turkey and Aghia Sophia that were submitted to the British peace delegation in Paris and the Foreign Office in London.

The first document was written by Sir A. Hamilton Grant, the foreign secretary to the Government of India on April 18 offering his thoughts on the future of British policy towards Turkey taking into account Muslim feelings in India and Egypt.

He thought that Britain faced a major backlash by ignoring the sympathies of the entire Islamic world since his country was the largest Muslim power on Earth. It was in Britain's interest to win the hearts and minds of Muslims with its large interests in the Middle East. After all, she ruled directly and indirectly communities in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Straits Settlement (today's Malaysia). Furthermore, Britain needed to consider that some of her imperial interests laid close to adjoining countries: Afghanistan, Russian Central Asia, Persia (Iran), and Arabia. Her policy needed to be decisive to win back the confidence of the Muslim world. Otherwise, she risked using force "to crush Muslim opposition by Russian methods."

Grant believed that Britain should be lenient towards Turkey, which would greatly assist her position with her Muslim subjects. He offered what he termed "practical solutions" regarding Turkey. These included: "1. the creation of a state of the [Turkish] straits strikes me as artificial, unnecessary and dangerous; 2. To put the Greeks into Constantinople would be open to every possible objection – and would please no one but the Greeks. Why put a detested and weak power into a position of permanent strategic importance? The populace would hate them."

He argued that Aghia Sophia should not be handed back "to Christian worship" as "this would be to the Muslim the crowning proof of our bad faith and our religious purpose throughout the war." When the future of the Ottoman Empire would be determined at the peace conference, Grant believed that being friends with Islam and Turkey would be a "safe and wise policy, if we mean to retain our Eastern possessions."

In the second document, Sir Thomas Hohler, the chief British political adviser in Constantinople, interviewed the Grand Vizier, Damad Ferid Pasha who had serious concerns about the future of Aghia Sophia and its impact on the Islamic world. The latter was perturbed of hearing that "societies were being formed in England and elsewhere with the object of handing it over to the Greeks." The Muslim world considered it a "most revered shrine in all the Muslim world next to the Holy Places [of Mecca and Medina in Arabia]."

Sultan Mehmed VI "was deeply [troubled] at the idea of losing it; he couldn't remain in Constantinople if it were handed over to Greeks."

Hohler's solution was that the Aghia Sophia "be made into purely an architectural monument, and that removed from the danger of heat of the religious contest." On the other hand, Ferid Pasha mentioned that handing back it to the Christians would create major problems for the whole Muslim world.

The third document is from the British naval representative in Constantinople, Admiral Richard Webb's telegram sent to the Foreign Office on April 24, 1919. It stated, "Grand Vizier tells me Papal Delegate has assured him of support of Vatican in returning Saint Sophia for Mohammedans as it is not desired that it should revert to Greek Church." An official of the Foreign Office, E. Forbes Adam minuted "avoid squabble among Christians."

In the final document, the Executive of the Nottingham, Newark and Grantham District Union of the English Church Union passed a resolution which was forwarded to the British Foreign Secretary of State, Arthur J. Balfour on May 1, 1919. It read "that this meeting urges the importance, on the grounds of justice to the long-suffering and oppressed Greeks in the Ottoman Empire, of the restoration of the great Christian Church of St. Sophia to Christian worship." Forbes Adam minuted "Catholic or Orthodox."

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