Justinian built it, Mehmet II took it by conquest, Ataturk turned it into a museum. Erdogan stacked a court with his acolytes, signed a paper converting it into a mosque and reckons himself a conqueror. When a monument stands majestic and wondrous for over 1,500 years, as Hagia Sophia has done, it becomes a symbol for all humanity, something like a force of nature. It takes the gall of a Herostratus to believe that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political games will amount to more than a miserable footnote in the history of Hagia Sophia. They will, however, mark a milestone in Turkey’s hasty retreat from the 21st century.
The Turkish court’s decision annulling Ataturk’s conversion of Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum was no surprise. Equally predictable was the speed with which Erdogan signed his own proclamation, bringing the monument under the jurisdiction of his Presidency’s Directorate for Religious Affairs. And yet, despite the certainty that the Turkish president would try to marshal his supporters in this way and to insult Christians everywhere, especially in Greece, I confess I was surprised by the sorrow and anger the decision provoked in me. These feelings, I believe, do not stem only from the fact that I am a Greek and a Christian – although this definitely plays a role. What I find inconceivable is the persistence of one man to keep violating borders, rules, laws, agreements and rights, and then to step this up by gleefully trampling on civilized forms of behavior, upsetting a whole region, driving his people ever further from our era. Turkish dissidents are in prison, in exile or stripped of the right to work and to have social security. The news media and society are under strict control. Whereas early in his time in power Erdogan eased pressure on the Kurds, in the past few years he has been relentless in his belligerence towards them, trying to gain from division, sucking up to nationalist extremists for their support. He acts like a great leader, as if Turkey is a superpower, but his chief weapon is in the hands of others – the tolerance that the international community has shown him. And as long as this appeasement continues, his behavior will become more brutal, relying more and more on a combustible mix of nationalist and religious extremism.
The architects of Hagia Sophia were pagans, members of Alexandria’s Platonic School. The great church was built in just under six years and was inaugurated on December 27 in 537. In 538, the dome collapsed and was rebuilt. Since then, it collapsed partially several times. Built long before the schism between Eastern and Western Christianity (in 1054), Hagia Sophia was the grandest and most important cathedral in all Christendom before becoming the symbol of Orthodoxy. I mention this history to note the “multicultural” nature of the church’s creation, its importance to all Christianity, and the fact that even before the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and its conversion into a mosque, the Church of Holy Wisdom had suffered much but was still standing.
A church for 916 years, a mosque for 482 and a museum for 85, Hagia Sophia is at the start of a new chapter now. It will always be a symbol of Christianity and the model on which great Turkish architects based their designs for grand mosques. But it will also represent a lost age in which Turkey, for good or ill, tried to keep up with the rest of the world. As long as it remains a mosque, it will stand witness to Turkey’s return to the behavior of a dark past. Justifying its new conversion on the grounds of a medieval “conquest” is proof of this.
Perhaps the only surprise these days is that Erdogan has played this card so early, without trying to extort much more from the international community, as he has done with the exploitation of migrants and refugees, with the invasion and occupation of foreign territory, with the violation of borders and the rights of neighbors, with support for extremist Islamists, and so on.
Erdogan’s strongest support comes from presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (to the extent that Turkey helps undermine NATO), and relies on tolerance by other countries, mainly in the European Union. This time, though, his hubris may be a step too far even for them.