Hagia Sophia set for another conversion

  • The Turkish deputy prime minister has expressed his desire to convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a museum for the past 80 years, back into a mosque.
  • He has rekindled a long-held dream of some Turkish Muslims.

When the Istanbul muezzins sing in unison to call the faithful to prayer, the Hagia Sophia alone remains silent, with all due respect to its four minarets. Visitors flock to admire the angels and the virgin and child, brilliant Byzantine mosaics under the dome, but centuries have gone by since the last mass.

It began as a church in 537 under the emperor Justinian. In 1453, following the conquest of Constantinople, the sultan Mehmed II converted it into a mosque. When the Ottoman empire in turn faded away, the young republic turned the old structure into a symbol of secularism, neither Christian nor Muslim. In 1934, on the orders of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the Hagia Sophia was transformed into a museum. It has dominated the list of the most visited sites in the country, boasting 3.3 million tickets sold in 2012.

Hagia Sophia’s status has always been under dispute. At times Muslim organizations prayed under its windows, right on the street, for the recovery of “their mosque”. A chamber of the State Council even had to confirm the building’s status. The Turkish executive, meanwhile, did not appear to be listening.

That might be about to change. The deputy prime minister and government spokesman, Bülent Arinç has publicly stated his wish for “the Hagia Sophia mosque to smile once again”. Pious proclamations? Or viable plan? So far, neither the prime minister nor the minister of culture in charge of the monument, have reacted.

The proponents of the idea are rejoicing, just like the Anatolian Youth Association, which has launched a campaign named “Break the chains so the Hagia Sophia reopens as a mosque”. Its former Istanbul director, Serhat Akçay, now local party vice-president, considers that it’s “completely unjust that a Muslim place of worship be turned into a museum.” When he’s reminded that the Hagia Sophia was first a church before becoming a mosque, Akçay invokes “right by conquest”.

He promises that nothing will change for tourists. “How do they enter the Blue Mosque? They cover their heads and legs at the entrance. The same would go for the Hagia Sophia. Even better, admission would be free.” This is opposed to the 25 lira (about nine euros), the current admission price, which is a true financial boon for the State.

Another sign of “hope” for these pious Muslims: two other Hagia Sophias, the one in the western city of Iznik and that of Trabzon on the Black Sea coast, both former churches turned to mosques and then museums, have once again opened their doors to Muslims as of 2011. This is a troubling trend in Saffet Emre Tonguç’s eyes. He’s a tour guide and the author of several bestsellers set in Istanbul. “Inside Hagia Sophia, you have the names of Allah, of the prophet Mohammed and mosaics of Jesus and the Virgin Mary side by side. Why transform this beautiful symbol of friendship between the religions into a mosque?” he asks. According to him, “these debates are nothing other than demonstrations of religious dominance. The Hagia Sophia mosaics are among the most beautiful of the Byzantine period. Would we have to cover them if it turned back into a mosque?”

The Turkish deputy prime minister has also revived old quarrels with its Greek neighbor. Athens expressed its anger in a Ministry of foreign affairs communiqué: “The repeated statements by the Turkish policy makers regarding the conversion of Byzantine churches into mosques is an insult to the religious sensibilities of millions of Christians (…) and is an anachronistic and incomprehensible act by a country that hopes to become part of the European Union”.

Ankara’s response was quick and terse: “Turkey has no lessons to learn from Greece in the matter of religious freedom”. And to further drive the point home: “Athens is the only European capital without a single mosque open for worship, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Muslims live there.”

ANNE ANDLAUER

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