Monuments that have endured through time and hardship are free of the bonds of their age, of the vision and fate of their creators. They become part of our global heritage, “judging” those responsible for their preservation.
The way that people and governments behave toward great works reveals their principles, their qualities, the future of their society.
On one extreme of the scale we have the short-lived “Islamic State,” which destroyed not only unique monuments of the pre-Islamic age but also the grand mosque of Mosul in which its leader proclaimed himself caliph; on the other side are nations that respect anything that is in their keeping, recognizing their responsibility to the past and the future.
Turkey today is placing itself before the judgment of history.
On July 2, the country’s highest court will decide whether Hagia Sophia will once again become a mosque, as it was from the Ottoman conquest in 1453 until it became a museum in 1935.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reopened the issue in an attempt to stoke nationalism at a time when his party is losing ground in opinion polls. And so, “this issue has become a product of domestic politics,” as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said Thursday in a discussion at the Delphi Economic Forum.
Erdogan is not the first politician to raise the issue – it has been simmering for years. However, this time the great building may become a mosque again.
As Erdogan has stated, he can do whatever he likes: The greatest cathedral of Eastern Christianity, the largest church for a thousand years after its construction in 537, was won in the Ottoman conquest, it belongs to Turkey.
Of course, any change to a World Heritage site has to be approved by UNESCO and converting it into a mosque would trample on religious sensitivities and provoke serious criticism across the world – not only in Greece and Cyprus.
Those outside Turkey, however, have little influence. If anything, Erdogan thrives on their hostility, as well as on the passions that he arouses in Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and elsewhere. What is more important is the impact that this will have in Turkey.
When a most potent symbol of Ataturk’s secular republic is destroyed, this will create further division, uncertainty and pain. In the shadow of Hagia Sophia.