There has been a lot of talk in Turkey recently about the fate of Hagia Sophia – a former Greek Orthodox basilica in Istanbul which was converted into a mosque but today operates as a museum – with messages and a dynamic that have transcended the domestic political arena of the neighboring country and have affected Greek-Turkish relations, as well as Turkey’s cultural and geopolitical image in the West.
This masterpiece of Byzantine architecture has stood firmly on its foundations for 15 centuries, surviving the tumultuous passage of time and cultures, to become today a landmark of impending changes in both the domestic and foreign policy of Turkey. These can be summarized in one word: re-Islamization.
Turkey is in the process of constant re-Islamization, with the ruling Islamic-rooted party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivering a succession of strong blows to the secular character of Turkish society. The issue of Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly an internal matter for Turkey that strikes at the heart of its society. In view of the complex and extremely significant general elections in Turkey in 2014, it has also become a point of reference and a key component of fomentation among the country’s rival politicians.
A steady stream of nostalgic statements from political and religious officials concerning the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, coupled with systematic efforts by the state to turn other Christian churches and museums or historical buildings named after St Sophia into Muslim places of worship, indicate a systematic policy on the part of the Turkish state in this area that ultimately aims at creating the right conditions on the psychological and public relations fronts that will lead to the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque from a museum, which it has been since 1934.
Whether this actually happens is a different matter.
However, Erdogan is not limiting himself to this aspect of the issue. He is also trying to send a message signaling the rebirth of Islam in the Balkans and other regions neighboring Turkey within the context of his view of the world – in which he sees himself rather as a sultan (rather than a pharaoh), a fact that is also attested by the massive construction projects that he has heralded and are currently in the process of being built.
It is clear that the issue of Hagia Sophia has its own symbolic significance for Islam. So, if there are those who want to see it converted from a museum into a mosque, then why shouldn’t the same be the case for Topkapi, the palace of the sultans, which together with Hagia Sophia represented the heart of political decision-making and religion in the Ottoman as well as in the earlier Byzantine periods?
At the same time, the above-mentioned actions also reflect the predominance of political Islam and, moreover, in a way that challenges the “moderate” label assigned by Western analysts and experts and which is now proving to be a pipe dream. The conversion of an officially recognized monument of the world cultural heritage from a museum into a mosque cannot be seen as anything but a departure from the political moderation and cultural equilibrium represented by the museum as a bridge between Hagia Sophia’s Christian and Muslim pasts. This departure from moderation also implies the creation of a cultural and political chain reaction on an international level. Even disregarding Hagia Sophia’s spiritual significance, its historical and architectural importance for world heritage and the dialogue of civilizations should not be overlooked by Ankara. Otherwise, the absence of moderation that the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque would signal would send the wrong message about international cultural cooperation and coexistence, reigniting the age-old relationship between East and West and transforming it from one of coexistence into an arena for future conflict.
* Dr Evangelos Venetis is head of the Middle East Research Project at the Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).