As a teenager, Ismail Kandemir would pay regular visits to Hagia Sophia, secretly performing the ritual of the Muslim prayer on his own. Today, the 75-year-old founder of the Turkish Association for the Protection of Historical Monuments and the Environment is the man behind the legal case that hopes to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The recent appeal to the Council of State is the result of a persistent personal effort of more than 16 years, which Kandemir identifies as his ultimate life goal.
Born in 1945 into an underprivileged and conservative family in a village on Turkey’s northwest coast, Kandemir spent the majority of his life working as a math teacher in the province of Bursa. He decided to retire after 33 uninterrupted years of teaching, in order to dedicate himself entirely to the Association for the Protection of Historical Monuments and the Environment, an organization he established in 2004.
“I used to change the lives of young boys and girls through teaching. Now, I am committed to the historical monuments that are unique to the culture of the Turkish nation, and wish to restore their intended use and change the lives of all believers,” he recently said in an interview with Turkish channel Haber7.
Though the title of Kandemir’s association may come across as nebulous or generic, its mission is crystal-clear: to convert a number of museums and historic buildings in Turkey into mosques – the most symbolic goal being the transformation of Hagia Sophia.
As he has explained in various interviews with the Turkish media as well as his book, “The Holy Temple of Ayasofya,” the incident that sparked his devotion to the Islamization of the monument came in 1978, following a visit by the then Libyan prime minister to Istanbul. “The Libyan leader wanted to hold the big Friday prayer service in Hagia Sophia, but the museum status did not allow him to do so,” Kandemir says. Since that day, he claims to have been collecting various documents with the ultimate goal of turning the renowned, multifaith world monument into a mosque.
In 2004, shortly after establishing his association, Kandemir used his gleanings to initiate his legal activism: He sent an official letter to the then-newly elected prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Interestingly, Kandemir’s legal argument is almost identical to that of the recent appeal to the Turkish Council of State, which took place last week. The founder of the association claims that the decree of the Council of Ministers signed in 1934, which asks that Hagia Sophia be converted into a museum, was never officially published in the government gazette. He also claimed that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s signature on the relevant decree was forged retrospectively. “Consequently, Sultan Mohammed II’s desire to keep the Hagia Sophia as a mosque is still valid. After all, the building is essentially his personal property,” the letter said.
Over the course of 16 years, Kademir’s argument has undergone almost no change, but his treatment by the political scene has changed drastically.
In fact, in 2004, Erdogan chose to respond to the association’s letter with complete silence, not recognizing its receipt. As a result, Kandemir complained to the administrative court of Bursa as his communication was not answered within the prescribed legal period. He then initiated legal action against the state, challenging the 1934 decree that converted Hagia Sophia into a museum. His case was heard by the 2nd Administrative Court of Bursa in January 2005, before being appealed to the 10th Division of the Council of State – coincidentally the same body that heard the recent case last Thursday. Both bodies explicitly rejected his request, finding little legal gravity.
Kandemir felt marginalized by the constant rejection, but he decided not to give up on his efforts. Most of his next steps also turn out to be futile: The Turkish Supreme Court upheld the decision of the 10th Division in December 2012, and then rejected the applicant’s request for an appeal on April 6, 2015.
It was only in 2019 that Kandemir managed to achieve his first victory, with his successful request to turn the famous Kariye Museum into a mosque. The historic monument built in the 4th century was a Greek Christian monastery – the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora – before being converted by the Ottomans into a mosque in the 16th century, and then into a museum after a decree of the Council of Ministers signed on August 29, 1945. Kandemir’s association managed to win the legal battle for the museum with Turkey’s Council of State, the country’s top administrative court, ruling that the historic cabinet decision that made Kariye a museum was unlawful because a mosque “cannot be used except for its essential function.” Thus, the first “legal” precedent for the controversial case of Hagia Sophia was created.
Today, Kandemir says he is thrilled with the wider social and political momentum behind his activism. “There is simply no point in a space operating as a museum and a mosque at the same time,” he recently told Yeni Safak, adding that any reactions from Greece, the Christian world and the international community are none of his concern. “I hope this very ridiculous situation will be corrected, and I am really looking forward to the Council’s decision,” he concludes.