Compromised legacies: Hagia Sophia and Mezquita Cathedral
IT was during the summer of 2020 that the government in Turkey decided to change the destiny of Hagia Sophia. A Byzantine Basilica of the 6th century and an Ottoman imperial mosque post the conquest of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia has functioned as a museum since the advent of a secular republic in Turkey. It was reconverted into a mosque on 10 July 2020 by a presidential decree. Two weeks later, during the covid pandemic, an official religious ceremony took place in the historic Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.
I watched the ceremony on television. The call to prayer was broadcast from the minarets of Hagia Sophia, and thousands of Muslim worshipers prayed in the outside courtyard. President Erdogan, his head covered with a white prayer cap, led the first prayers, under the dome, reciting verses of conquest from the Koran. The head of Turkey’s religious directorate (diyanet) delivered the Friday sermon holding a sword in his hand. He later explained to those who were appalled with this belligerent representation of Islam that the sword, as well as the two green flags on the pulpit of the mosque, stood as symbols of conquest, a sign of the Ottoman tradition that they wanted to resume.
What were the political motivations and how can one unravel the civilizational underpinnings of the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque? Can the decision be interpreted as part of neo-Ottomanist politics, as a politics of nostalgia to compensate for the loss of Empire? Does it translate into a desire for revenge against the legacy of Ataturk’s modern republic? Does it stand as radical and symbolic evidence of the Islamization of Turkey?
A court decision made its conversion possible – from being a museum into becoming a mosque –transforming Ayasofya, that was under the authority of the Ministry of Culture, to the status of a pious foundation (waqf), thereby ‘waqf-izing the Turkish state’.1 The question is, to whom was the message addressed? To the Turkish secularists, the Orthodox Christians, Western Europe, or the Muslim world?
From the time the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in 1924, a fight for religious leadership and authority has broken out within the Muslim world. The Khilafat movement (1919-1924) was launched by Indian Muslims in defence of the Caliphate and pan-Islamism. From then on the fear of disunity among the Muslim community, and the void of authority, animated the resurgence of Islamist movements that fought for political and religious guidance across the Muslim world. Does President Erdogan seek to impose his leadership over the Sunnite Muslim world by transforming Hagia Sophia into a mosque thereby defying the western secular hegemony?
And finally, an important question arises from all these actions – to whom does the Hagia Sophia belong? This important question goes beyond national boundaries and involves different players from across the world. It is important to state here that when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk designated Hagia Sophia in 1934 to be a museum, he did so to guarantee the preservation of the edifice as being one free of religion to ensuring that it belonged to the world’s patrimony.
To abandon the religious function of the monument meant neutralizing religious legacies and their corresponding ‘publics’. As a museum it had created its own ‘publics’ over time and had become a world tourist attraction. This had also allowed for the work of restoration, and of uncovering the mosaics, thereby offering the possibility for scholars of Ottoman history and Byzantium art to engage with the monument and conduct valuable research and archival work. The recent decision to reconvert Ayasofya into a mosque has resonated worldwide, beyond Turkish borders, shaking the legacy of Orthodox Christianity, and disregarding its world patrimony ownership.
These were some thoughts that came to mind as I observed the fragments of the fastidiously prepared public staging of the act of reconversion, namely the scene of collective praying, the reinvented religious rituals and the elaboration of the rhetoric of conversion and conquest. To open Hagia Sophia to prayer required a rearrangement of its interior space and the use of new materials and liturgical elements.
The preservation of Byzantine mosaics was a major concern for those who feared the decision. A white curtain was adopted as a solution to temporarily conceal the mosaics during the prayers. My attention was drawn to a turquoise carpet covering the ancient marble to facilitate prayer. I wondered to what extent the introduction of similar new elements into the interior for prayer, like carpets, curtains, chandeliers, and a sound system, would alter the sensorial and acoustic experience of this historic space? Would it be detrimental to the interior?
I needed to return to Hagia Sophia to observe the material adjustments and personally experience the spiritual and aesthetic components of the new environment. I presumed that, as is the ritual when entering any mosque, here at the Ayasofya mosque too, I would have to take off my shoes and cover my head.
As a young girl, I was educated in a secular environment, both in school and at home, and had a deep commitment to Ataturk’s commitment to modernity. I had learned to take pride in Ayasofya as a museum. It defined an allegiance to the secular legacy of Ataturk. To me it was a symbol of secularism in a Muslim country, embracing multiple cultural and religious heritages – a Byzantine past, an eastern Christianity and the Ottoman Empire. The question therefore arises; does the fact that Ayasofya ceased to be a museum mean that Turkey has changed its set of identity markers? Does it seek a new and different alignment between Islamic, Ottoman and Turkish identities, while drifting away from Europe and secular modernity? I must confess a deep feeling of loss and resentment at this new state of affairs.
Iwas aware that Ayasofya stood amid conflicting memories between secular and conservative social groups in Turkey.The controversy over its legacy has been omnipresent during the period of the Turkish republic, with its conflicting narratives as markers of the secular and religious dispute. With the advent of the Turkish Republic, when Ayasofya was transformed into a national museum in 1934, it became a master symbol for re-editing the history of Turkish secularism. As a museum, it guaranteed neutrality between religions, detachment from the Ottoman past and renunciation of the symbol of conquest. It was reorganized around the principles of Turkish secularism and was transformed from a place of worship into a symbol of being a repository that defined art and culture.
Ayasofya as a museum embraced the modern world, embracing and preserving cultural patrimony with a profound respect for works of art as legacy. However, in the eyes of the conservatives, transforming Ayasofya from a mosque into a museum, meant the disavowal of its Ottoman past and a subjugation to the supremacy of the West. If secularists took pride in Ayasofya being a museum, enabling them to elaborate the narrative of Turkish secularism, the conservatives felt humiliated at being deprived of the Ayasofya as a symbol of conquest reinforcing the sensibility of the grandeur of the Ottomans.
Necip Fazil Kisakürek (1904-1983), Turkish poet, playwright and novelist became very popular amongst the generation of Islamists in the ’70s, as he deftly turned the sense of humiliation into a furious and fanatic defence of Islam. With great zeal he advocated ‘the opening of Ayasofya to worship’, propagating the greatness of the crescent as opposed to the cross.2 Erdogan, who revered Necip Fazil, said before the reopening, that‘it was the greatest dream of our youth. This is Ayasofya breaking away from its chains of captivity.’ The reconversion of Ayasofya to a mosque expressed the fulfilment of the longings of the Islamist generation of the 1970s.
History means different things to different groups. Each historical event has generated competing narratives and fresh rhetoric with their rival consequences. The decision of conversion reversed not only the secular rhetoric, but also the politics of feelings. Secularists were proud of the museum of Ayasofya, for whom it was a keystone of modern Turkey. They have resented its conversion. In reverse, for the conservatives, Ayasofya being restored back to a mosque, meant an end to their humiliation.
From the latter part of the 1980s, religious conservatism has evolved from being a marginal, subaltern position of passivity, into an assertive arm of political Islam. In the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and with the rise to power in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey, the reference to religion has become a source of empowerment for those who contested the idea of secularism and claimed state power, faith and the pious self.
During the last three decades, I have been studying the public visibility of the new actors of Islam and have observed the widening secular-religious divide. I have attempted to translate the subjectivities and narratives of both the distinct and hostile social groups and have attempted to open a mental space for familiarization and mutual recognition.
Ithought that the self-limitation of political Islam on the one hand, and a more inclusive understanding of Turkish laiklik (secularism) on the other, was possible. I believed that the reforms undertaken by Turkey, to attain membership of the European Union, would have enhanced the chance to consolidate a political framework to implement a state of law, craft a pluralistic society, respect minorities, come to terms with the past and create a new social contract for citizenship. I had bet on the endurance of the pluralistic legacies of an Ottoman past, the parliamentary tradition of a Republican Turkey, which would ensure a vibrant civil society where critical discourse would define intellectual activity. I was wrong.
Can we conclude, from this turn, that Turkey is evolving in a totally different direction, replacing secular authoritarianism with Islamic hegemony over definitions of the self, public life and state power? Despite attempts to erase diverse legacies of the past to create a homogeneous majoritarian nation, as a sociologist, I believe, there will always be a reservoir for purposeful action and resistance, to assist ensuring the ‘completeness’ of a nation,3 taking into the larger domain the experience and demands of the minorities and absorbing the legacy of a multilayered history and the pluralist definitions of Turkish identity.
The contested histories of monuments, the struggles for control over their usage and ownership, are intrinsically related to the competing visions of politics and identity. The case of Ayasofya illustrates the way history is written and rewritten. The recent recon-version of Ayasofya from a museum to a mosque is an act of re-editing history and identity from the vantage point of Islam and from the will of the people, supposedly one that defined Turkey as a Muslim majority nation.
Who will be dismissed from the picture and what will be lost in this process of conversion (read translation) are two crucial questions that remain unanswered. To put it bluntly, one can ask what kind of religion will be solicited in Ayasofya; will it be a space for the political and ideological staging of religion at the expense of the spiritual? What kind of ‘publics’ will gather to reinvest the sanctuary and animate its new afterlife? Knowing that Hagia Sophia has served as the patriarchal seat of eastern Christendom for nearly a millennium, one wonders how this legacy will find a place in the new rhetoric of the state.
Regrettably, one can say that they have not used the legacy of eastern Christianity in Turkey as an opportunity for adopting pluralism and its deep historical sources to extend beyond the memory of the nation-state. And furthermore, in conformity with Islamist ideology, and neo-populist religious nationalism, they have deepened the opposition binary between the Christian West and Islam. They failed to complexify the image of the West from the vantage point of eastern Christianity. The neo-Ottomanism of the AKP has a rhetoric that ignores the pluralistic legacies of the Ottoman Empire. While it professes to challenge western modernity, the party only ends up solidifying the simplified equations of the West with Christianity and dismisses the Slavic, Byzantine and Ottoman influences on European history and civilization.4
Iwould like to discuss another religious monument – the Mezquita-Cathedral in Cordoba which has a Muslim legacy and remains disputed in the discussions on national identity and the editing of history in contemporary Spain.
Along with the Alhambra of Grenada the 8th century Great Mosque of Cordoba is the most prestigious witness of the Muslim presence in Spain. For the inhabitants of Cordoba and for its visitors, the Mezquita is one of the major monuments of Hispano-Muslim Andalusian architecture. Built by the Umayyad caliphs, it was expanded several times by their successors. In the interior, a forest of marble columns and double arcades in brick and white stone create the impression of infinity, translating a singular aesthetic, that of transcendence. When Cordoba was retaken by the Christians in 1236, the Mezquita was converted into a church. In the 16th century, a cathedral in the baroque style of architecture was built at the centre of the monument. Today the Mezquita Cathedral is the primary church in the diocese of Cordoba and the practice of Muslim worship there is formally prohibited.
The tolerance of the Church was tested when a leader of Spain’s Muslim converts, Mansur Abdussalam Escudero, requested authorization for Muslims to pray inside the Mezquita Cathedral. He made his claim public and laid out his prayer mat in the street in front of the entrance to the monument and performed his prayers, captured for posterity by television cameras. This was in December 2006. Escudero stated that his objective was not to bring back the past or recover and appropriate the space for himself, but to welcome worship; to establish the Mosque-Cathedral as a unique ecumenical place in the world as a symbol of universality. His appeal was rejected by the Bishop of Cordoba based on the argument that a Catholic church cannot be shared, as Muslims do not believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
In 2010, to end the recurring requests, the bishop put forward a proposal to change the name of the monument and asked the city to renounce the term Mezquita and retain ‘Cathedral of Cordoba’. His view was that the term ‘mosque’ created confusion in the minds of visitors, and since the building had been used as a cathedral through many centuries, it would be inappropriate today to call it a mosque. However, neither the residents nor City Hall supported his proposition.
That dispute over the identity of the monument and the ‘war of words’ it triggered, continues to this day. The conflict over the name of the mosque-cathedral made headlines in 2015 when the word ‘mosque’ temporarily disappeared from Google maps, leaving only a reference to the Cathedral of Cordoba.
The term Mezquita-Cathedral defined a shared heritage, a hyphenated identity of the edifice; eliminating the term Mezquita was akin to rejecting the past denying heritage, and thereby denying the presence of Islamic forms and features in its architecture. This struggle to control the image and ownership of the mosque directly questions Spanish identity. The Mezquita Cathedral of Cordoba is at the centre of the dispute over Spanish identity and the legacy of its Muslim past.
During my research into Islamic controversies in Europe, I conducted a discussion group in 2010 in Cordoba, themed around the Mezquita controversy.5 Some shared their concerns about attempts to distort the past by removing vestiges of Muslim heritage from Spanish patrimony. The rise of nationalist movements and the current Islamophobic policies reminded them about the ‘hunt for moros’ during the Reconquista period.
What it means to be Spanish today is a subject of debate and informs the ways of re-editing the past. If one group sees Spanish identity as fundamentally Catholic and finds pride in the Reconquista, the other incorporates diversity as a fundamental part of what it means to be Spanish and celebrates the history of Convivencia, or coexistence. For them the monument is a reminder of this multi-religious past, supposedly a harmonious one, when Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in peace. The Mosque of Cordoba is a focal point in the dispute over how Spain’s Islamic past should inform its present and its future.
Like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Mezquita-Cathedral of Cordoba too occupies a unique place in the patrimony of civilizations, inscribed on the world heritage sites of Unesco. They embody glorious moments of the past and host different civilizations. Hagia Sophia represents the Byzantium past in Istanbul, whereas the Great Mosque in Cordoba witnesses the medieval presence of Islam in Spain. The inhabitants still refer to it as the Mezquita, meaning the Great Mosque. In Istanbul, people colloquially refer to Hagia Sophia as Ayasofya camii, using the Turkish pronunciation.
Both the Hagia Sophia and the Mezquita display, in their architectural edifice, the many influences and borrowings from both cultures, and the interpenetrations between civilizations. One has grown into a mosque from being a church, and the other is a cathedral within the mosque. Both are hybrid structures and shared spaces. St Sophia, which means Holy Wisdom – Hagia Sophia in Greek – is a place of worship and memory for Byzantine Christians and for Ottoman Muslims. Hagia was the principal church of the Byzantine Empire in Constantinople. It became the imperial mosque of the Ottoman sultans.
The conquerors transformed this Byzantine space by integrating it fully into imperial and Islamic collective memory. In this new Islamic context, and at the initiative of Sultans engaged with its restoration and transformation, the Ayasofya was consecrated into a place of worship and a religious symbol of Islam. Distinctive signs of Christianity, such as steeples and altars, were removed, the mosaics were covered, and Islamic architectural elements like the mihrab, minbar and minarets were added. Ottoman sultans promoted the creation of texts, the production of myths and fables, thereby promoting the narrative of the conversion of Hagia Sophia into an imperial mosque.6
The dome of Hagia Sophia and the interior covered with gold mosaics and marble, remain distinctive features of Byzantium architecture. Hagia Sophia exerted a strong influence on classic Turkish and Ottoman architecture. The mosques of the famous architect Mimar Koca Sinan (1489-1588), are characterized by their domes and slender minarets, illustrating a mediation between Byzantine and Islamic architectural traditions. These distinctive architectural forms are reproduced up until today, dominating the panorama of Turkish cities.
Similarly, the Great Mosque of Cordoba has had a profound impact on the Hispanic Muslim tradition of architecture. Symbol of the golden age of Muslim medieval culture, the embodiment of Al-Andalus in 1236 with Reconquista, it ceased to function as a mosque and the new Christian rulers turned it into a cathedral. The visual reminders of its Muslim past and the features of Islamic architecture, the horseshoe arches, the prayer niche facing Mecca, and the former minaret transformed into a bell tower, are still present.
Both edifices embody the sedimentation of cultures. They were subjected to epoch-making ruptures, the Reconquista in Spain and the fall of Constantinople; they survived successive conversions from one religion to another; and endured changing power structures from empires to nation states. Wars, conquests and conversions are engraved in the folds of their longue durée histories.
By converging the narratives of Hagia Sophia and the Mezquita, I have attempted to highlight the hybrid heritage of eastern Christianity and European Islam. These monuments give us the opportunity not to limit Islam to the East and Christianity to the West, but instead help open our readings beyond the established oppositions between Islam and Christianity, East and West. These monuments were built to celebrate glorious moments of the past.
The management of past heritage changes with time and age. One can celebrate the multicultural past, the mythical moments of cohabitation between three different monotheistic religions, as in the Spanish case of ‘Convivencia’ or the Ottoman ‘millet’ system. Or, on the contrary, one can adopt a vision of the dominant identity, essentially Catholic for Spain, and Islamic for Turkey.
With the advent of religious nationalism and populist movements, that which defends the consolidation of majority identities is gaining ground. Turkish nationalism is gaining strength in contrast to its multireligious and multiethnic past. In Spain, the Muslim past has become a divisive issue when addressing Spanish identity. The power struggles over the significance of historical monuments reveal the conflict politics of memory and identity. Both these monuments continue to symbolize power struggles. Today they are under public scrutiny as markers of a symbolic battle between Islam and the West.
The many political claims to change forms, usages and rhetoric surrounding these monuments have become more salient. The disputes over ‘naming’ these edifices, of whether one should be called a cathedral, mezquita or a mosque, a house of prayer for Christians or Muslims, or a museum to celebrate the universal heritage, are all ways of editing histories, setting cultural agendas and creating identity orientations for future democracies. Such religious nationalism brings forth a new momentum in the attempts to re-edit history and society.
The European project of pluralism has fallen short in resisting and building against this oncoming tide. Illustrating the experience of Turkey and Spain, and further by adopting a decentralized view on Europe, we can illustrate the importance of hybrid heritages and legacies for building contemporary stakes in support of pluralist societies.
1. Murat Akan, ‘Floating Sophia, Polarizing to Abeyance, Waqf-izing the State’, Journal of Muslims in Europe 10, 2021, p. 1-24.
2. Igor Torbakov, ‘The Philosophy Behind Erdogan’s Hagia Sophia Reconquest’, Eurosianet, 27 July 2020.
3. Arjun Appadurai, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Duke University Press, Durham, 2006.
4. George Delanty, The European Heritage. A Critical Re-Interpretation. Routledge, London and New York, 2018.
5. Nilüfer Göle, The Daily Lives of Muslims: Islam and Public Confrontation in Contemporary Europe, translated by Jacqueline Lerescu. Zed Books, London, 2017.
6. Gülru Necipoglu, ‘The Life of an Imperial Monument, Hagia Sophia after Byzantium’ in Robert Mark and Ahmet S. Cakmak (eds.), Hagia Sophia from the Age of Justinian to the Present. Cambridge University Press, 1992.