July 27, 2020
By Karen Barkey

Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the momentous decision to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque. The Hagia Sophia was built in the time of Justinian, the sixth century Byzantine emperor. It was converted into a mosque by Mehmed II after the conquest of Constantinople, and after 481 years as a mosque, was finally turned into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. In 1985, in a move that underscored its cultural and historical importance, the Hagia Sophia was chosen as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Hagia Sophia, which means “divine wisdom” in Greek, has been subjected to many worldly yearnings of power and symbolism. There is no doubt that altering the status of the great church has always meant domination through control of its symbolism. President Erdogan frequently uses the Ottoman conquest and right of sword as part of his symbolic political vocabulary. However, there is a world of difference between the Ottoman conquest and transformation of the Church and Erdogan’s reversal of Ataturk’s decision.

The conquest of Constantinople extended the Ottoman’s cultural horizons. The contemporary transformation of Hagia Sophia only serves to further reduce Turkish cultural openness and pluralism. The two moments could not be more different.

With the conquest of Constantinople, the Ottomans more directly encountered the metropolitan Byzantine culture, and the slow Ottomanization and Islamization of the Hagia Sophia is a testament to this meeting. Mehmed II, who was eager to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, nevertheless remained open to Greek culture, arts, and great manuscripts. He had long prepared himself for this moment and well understood the layers of structural and ideological meaning that the Church had acquired. He also perceived himself as the legitimate heir to the Byzantine empire. This would entail building continuity rather than rupture—and thus, the Christian symbolic associations would need to be complemented by Ottoman and Islamic ones.

Various myths, legends, and narratives were summoned (and others were developed) to bridge the gap between the pre-Christian and Christian pasts and the Islamic present. How, then, to leave behind the Christian past, but connect it legitimately to this new Islamic present? Legends of Islamic warriors, saints, and heroes were marshalled to cement this continuity between Christianity and Islam in popular imaginaries by claiming interactions, relations, knowledge of the other. As we know, openness to pluralism and tolerance for mixed traditions thrived until the seventeenth century when Sunni Orthodoxy consolidated and intolerance set in.

The Hagia Sophia thus reflected the pluralism of the early empire. It created an interpretive community of sorts, mixing stories of heroism and allowing for cultural exchange.

Contemporary Turkey is very far removed from that era. State leaders and large swathes of conservative Sunni Muslims are enamored with Ottoman history and freely use Ottoman tropes, such as the conquest of Istanbul and the right of the sword according to Islam, and relish in the re-enactment of May 29, 1453 every year.  However, I believe these are the wrong values to uphold in the twenty-first century. The Ottomans wanted to build continuity, tolerance, and incorporation. Modern Turkey wants to break with the last vestiges of religious pluralism. This is a clear message to non-Muslims that they do not belong.

President Erdogan’s speech during the announcement of this latest transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque tells us that religion and nationalism are the two forces behind this move. The strategic re-stitching of religious nationalism at a moment of internal hardship and strain, along with far-reaching statements to the international community and the Islamic umma.  

In Turkey, such actions have time and again energized the base and bolstered support of the AKP, while simultaneously emptying religion of its ethical content. Addressing the Islamic world, Erdogan promised that such a move would foreshadow the liberation of the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. It was his claim to represent the Islamic umma, and an unsubtle message of insurmountable civilizational division.

Finally, by issuing a threat to the international community which might object to this decision, Erdogan asserts Turkey’s sovereign right to decide its internal affairs without any interference. The claims of democratic legitimacy, religious restoration, and domestic sovereignty demonstrate the trajectory of Turkish religious nationalism, away from tolerance and openness, from pluralism and internationalism, towards deepening Islamic majoritarianism.

Karen Barkey is the Haas Distinguished Chair of Religious Diversity at the Othering & Belonging Institute.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.