“We will conquer mosques,” proclaimed Ali Erbas, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate, on May 27 as he announced the Turkish government’s plan to reopen mosques for public worship after a Covid-19 hiatus. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan requested the reopening, originally planned for June 12, to be pulled back to May 29. Erbas explained Erdogan’s reasoning for the new date as a desire to show all that they would be reconquering mosques on the 567th anniversary of Constantinople’s capture by Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. The Friday prayer planned for May 29 was to be a celebration of the defeat not only of the pandemic but also the Byzantines.There are other signs that the Erdogan government has its crosshairs on Hagia Sophia. Erbas pointed to the public square next to Hagia Sophia as the location for the first Friday prayer celebrating the opening of the mosques. This is precisely the area where thousands gather annually for morning prayers to demand the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque on the anniversary of Istanbul’s conquest.
A few weeks prior to Erbas’ statement, Erdogan’s communications chief, Fahrettin Altun, tweeted alarming comments alongside a photo of Hagia Sophia: “We miss her! But a bit more patience. We will accomplish this together…” Turkish Twitter timeline went haywire following this posting. Many users interpreted it to be an announcement that Hagia Sophia would be open to Islamic worship soon. A hashtag campaign, “Hagia Sophia should be open on May 29,” attracted tens of thousands in support of Altun’s tweet.
There is a deeper significance to the Turkish government’s juxtaposing of Hagia Sophia and the post-pandemic opening of mosques. Amongst those who demand Hagia Sophia’s conversion, there is a belief that all the hardships Turkey is facing, from the economic downturn to terrorist attacks, is caused by Hagia Sophia’s current status. They believe that these problems exist because the founding president of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, converted Hagia Sophia into a museum, breaking the stipulation in Mehmet II’s 1453 endowment deed that forbids the building to serve any other purpose than a mosque. For them, reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque would provide the magical solution to all of Turkey’s problems, even those caused by the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak.
Despite picking May 29 as his preferred date to reopen Turkish mosques into service, Erdogan avoided any reference to Hagia Sophia. In fact, since the rise of his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, Erdogan has been consistently dodging any questions regarding Hagia Sophia’s status. This is in stark contrast to his days as a member of the Islamist Welfare Party (RP) in the 1980s and 1990s, during which Erdogan shared his party’s vision of reconverting Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
After his rise to power with the AKP, Erdogan played good cop/bad cop with Bulent Arinc, his then-deputy-prime minister, vis-à-vis Hagia Sophia’s status, who continued to openly voice Islamist desires to see Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Until his fallout with Erdogan following the failed coup attempt of 2016, Arinc was at the forefront of the campaign for Hagia Sophia, while Erdogan kept a strategic silence, trying to maintain a delicate balance with Turkey’s Western allies and Russia.
Erdogan broke his silence about Hagia Sophia in March 2019, days before Turkey’s municipal elections. Erdogan’s statement on live TV indicating that he could change Hagia Sophia’s status from museum to mosque created much controversy. Many analysts saw this as a desperate effort to gain votes ahead of challenging elections for the country’s municipalities, in which the AKP ended up losing Turkey’s top metropolises. The biggest blow to Erdogan was losing Istanbul to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), not once but twice following his annulment of the March election and forcing of a rerun in June. Erdogan’s ploy to convert Hagia Sophia into votes failed to do the trick.
Where does Erdogan stand today concerning attempts to reconquer Hagia Sophia? The latest developments show that two senior figures, Erbas and Altun, have replaced Arinc as Erdogan’s surrogate advocates for Hagia Sophia. While they continue to make suggestive comments about Hagia Sophia arousing excitement amongst Erdogan’s core supporters who share his Islamist outlook, Erdogan keeps his silence not to risk further the turbulent relations with Turkey’s Western allies and Russia.
Erdogan and his aides’ latest Hagia Sophia stunt will prove to be yet another piece of theatrics to divert the electorate’s attention away from the AKP’s mismanagement of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the Hagia Sophia controversy may offer the Turkish president some respite from more pressing issues at hand, Erdogan should know best that the reconversion of Hagia Sophia is not at all the cure he is looking for.
Dr. Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir is a research associate at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Anthropology.