The forced conversion of Hagia Sophia

The sound of the azaan, the first of 9 prayers in Islam, rang out from the Hagia Sophia on 24th July after 86 years of silence. The sounds had sectarian undertones after the Turkish government decided to convert the 1,500 year- old building to a mosque. The mosque will remain open to all faiths, and the mosaic walls will be covered during prayers. The control will also be given to the Turkish Religious Authority.

Church, to mosque, to museum

The erstwhile museum has a history fraught with conflict, transfers of ownership and is a living witness to Turkey’s jumbled history. Built by the emperor Justinian I, when Istanbul was still Constantinople, Hagia Sophia was an architectural marvel. A cathedral with iconic Byzantine mosaics, it was the biggest cathedral overlooking the economically significant port of Constantinople. It was converted into a mosque when Sultan Mehmed of the Ottomans conquered the city and plastered Arabic calligraphy over the Christian symbols.

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Mustafa Ataturk, the founding father of Turkey in 1934, converted the mosque into a museum as a metaphor and an example of Turkish secularism to the globe. It was then seen as a World Heritage Site and drew the largest visitors in Turkey. The Byzantine mosaics were unearthed, and the Culture Ministry was given the responsibility of managing the site.

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In a reversal of policy, a top court in Turkey has now called the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque illegal, with president Erdogan using a purported “curse” by Mehmed as one of the bases of the controversial ruling.

What should have been a subdued and a hushed process was, on the contrary, popularized and celebrated with even the President of the erstwhile Byzantine city, Recep Erdogan, attending the first prayers. The decision has been met with criticism from within the republic as well as around the globe.

The conundrum of religious affiliation

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Orthodox Islamists rejoiced as the Hagia Sophia was restored to its former Ottoman glory, overshadowing the Byzantine history of the building. The conversion brings to the fore a fundamental question, Do the claims of one religion surpass another’s on monuments having multi-religious identities, and can a monument of historical importance open to all faiths espouse a single religious identity? For the Hagia Sophia has influenced the course of world history profoundly and has multiple faiths intertwined in its Byzantine walls and Arab designs. A monument cannot remain a monument if it claims to belong to a particular religion. Disregarding the claims of one religion and accepting the claims of another amount to giving the Hagia Sophia status of an Islamic building and implies that the Byzantine history of the building was illegal, even reducing it to illegal occupation of an Islamic building, mirroring the Court’s opinion.

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Moreover, the basis of the government’s decision is a sudden change in policy; Erdogan had over a year ago called the idea ridiculous. This sudden brainwave can only be attributed to Erdogan’s attempt to feed a nationalist voter base. Using a sacred site for personal/political motives is nothing short of reducing faith to an instrument of retaining power. The Hagia Sophia, its mark permanent on history, has always been an ode to the impressive mix of East and West; it now is up to the government to ensure the morning calls to prayer do not serve as an upheaval of Turkey’s secularist stance.

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Source: The New York Times

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