Muslims, wearing face masks as a precaution against infection from the coronavirus, gather for the Eid al-Adha prayer inside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, recently converted back into a mosque, in Istanbul on July 31.
“Hey brother! Have you heard? Hagia Sophia is a mosque! No, I didn’t get a raise, my son didn’t get a job and I’m still trying to pay for the house, but Hagia Sophia has become a mosque!” The humorous exchange seen in a viral TikTok video in Turkey is indicative of how many Turkish citizens feel about their president’s decision to abolish the historic Christian basilica’s status as a museum, established in 1934 by the founder of modern Turkey.
“Half the Turks I speak to disagree with the decision, as they find it deeply offensive for anyone to challenge Kemal Ataturk and especially his signature on a presidential decree,” 58-year-old P.K., a Greek from Istanbul, tells Kathimerini. “Personally, I wasn’t surprised. It was a move the Turkish president needed because it endows him with prestige and strength while it may also rally his electoral base.”
P.K. argues that symbols are important to Turks, “who have trouble processing abstract notions like ‘nation’ and ‘state,’” as evidenced by the plethora of Turkish flags all over the country. “Hagia Sophia as a mosque sends a similar message to the domestic audience,” she says, expressing concern about developments between Greece and Turkey as reflected in the Greek media.
“I often discern a bellicose attitude, but unfortunately, you keep forgetting that there are Greeks living here,” she says.
Giannis Gigourtsis, a philologist and researcher who spent 12 years teaching at the Phanar Greek Orthodox College in Istanbul, says that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s initiative is “indicative of where the country is heading.” He also warns that “we should not rule out more steps in this direction soon.”
Ataturk’s decision to convert the historical monument into a museum 85 years ago is widely regarded as a powerful message to the West of his vision for Turkey.
“Mr Erdogan has this proprietary attitude: ‘The monument is mine and I’ll do what I want with it. What do I care about world heritage?’” Gigourtsis says, offering his own interpretation of the Turkish president’s stance.
“They have this overall vision of elevating the country into a leading force in the Islamic world, but they do not have an organized, long-term plan and they often act opportunistically,” he adds in reference to the Turkish government. Gigourtsis argues that Erdogan’s relationship with US President Donald Trump has further cultivated this attitude.
As a museum, Hagia Sophia received millions of visitors a year and generated significant revenues for the Turkish state and the city of Istanbul, and its conversion into a mosque is controversial on many different levels.
“Covering the Christian symbols and adding Islamic elements spoils the monument’s aesthetic and downgrades its character as an open public site, even though its historical character and the ‘memory’ of the space remain intact,” says the academic.
As a mosque, it may continue to attract thousands of worshippers, but it will lose its source of revenue from admission fees that are crucial to constant restoration work on the site carried out by UNESCO and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.
“The fact that it is still standing is a miracle, as it has serious structural problems,” says Gigourtsis, adding that if restoration work stops, “the safety of the building is at stake.”
For Minas Vasiliadis, publisher of the Greek community newspaper Apogevmatini, Erdogan is “pressing on the trigger of a gun with one bullet.” His decision to convert Hagia Sophia was a risky move that suggests “he has done the math and is convinced that it will work, while knowing that there are a lot of problems in other areas.” According to the journalist, “a political and economic meltdown is just around the corner, but I can’t say which will come first.”
“The country is having trouble borrowing from abroad, we can’t bank on foreign exchange from tourism this year, the low interest offered by banks is putting off depositors and military operations cost money,” says Vasiliadis. “The crisis is constantly being staved off with financial alchemy (like swaps, for example) or thanks to the intervention of other countries that would be harmed by Turkey’s economic collapse.”
Are Greeks affected by Turkey’s increasingly poor international image?
“Of course, given that we are citizens of this country,” he answers, adding that there is also the question of the declining Greek population, despite a small uptick in recent years. “I don’t have any hard data, but I can say that we have more funeral announcements than baptisms in our paper.”