“Give way, I say, renowned Roman Capitol, give way!” So wrote Paul the Silentiary (d. 575-580 A.D.), a Greek poet and palace official in Constantinople, known for his short poems, eighty of which have survived to our day. In his poem Description of Hagia Sophia, he described the magnificent church built by Emperor Justinian I, Eastern Roman Emperor, reigning from 527-565 A.D.:
Above all rises into the immeasurable air the great helmet [of the dome], which, bending over, like the radiant heavens, embraces the church. And at the highest part, at the crown, was depicted the cross, the protector of the city. And wondrous it is to see how the dome gradually rises wide below, and growing less as it reaches higher. it does not however spring upwards to a sharp point, but is like the firmament which rests on air, though the dome is fixed on the strong backs of the arches.
According to Paul the Silentiary, the imperial renewal enterprise, which included buildings, undertaken by Justinian, had far surpassed Old Rome or the first-born Latin Rome. But the poet went a step further in his poem dedicated to the magnificent church of Hagia Sophia, calling the Old Rome on the Tiber to give way to the New on the Bosphorus, as Constantinople was far superior to her mother – Old Rome:
But come, fruitful Rome, and garland our life-giving emperor, clothing him abundantly with pure hymns . . . because, by raising this measureless temple about your arm, he has made you more brilliant than your mother on the Tiber. Give way, I say, renowned Roman Capitol, give way!
Last week, the Turkish court ruled that the almost 1,500-year-old church of Hagia Sophia should “give way” from being a museum to becoming a mosque, with Muslim prayer scheduled to start as early as July 24th. Crowds of supporters of Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) were gathered in front of Hagia Sophia celebrating the victory. For Erdogan’s supporters the decision to see Hagia Sophia converted into a mosque signified a second victory of Sultan Mohamed II, who on May 29, 1453, captured the queen city of Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia to a mosque. Erdogan has maintained his promise, as converting Hagia Sophia to a mosque was part of his political platform.
Why is Erdogan so eager for Hagia Sophia to be a mosque?
The conversion of Hagia Sophia from museum to mosque is part of the platform to change Turkey and renew the Old Ottoman Empire influence. Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey is getting rid of Kemalism—that is, the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), founder of modern Turkey and a father of the nation.
Ataturk promoted a Westernized-secular and reformed Turkey committed to European ideals. The abolition of the typical Turkish fez worn by men was one of the Ataturk’s visible reform; Turks need to look European in fashion, too. The hat reform, granting women the right to vote, and the alphabet reform which changed Turkish script from an Arab alphabet to a Latin-script are just a few of the changes made by Ataturk. His Turkey was a European Turkey, rid of its Ottoman legacy; it was a powerful European-secular Turkey. It was Ataturk who converted Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum, as “he wanted to keep Hagia Sophia as the sign of the transition from a theocratic empire from a conqueror mentality, to the equal citizenship in a secular society, in a secular state,” said His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, who had grown up in Istanbul, in a July 14, 2020 BBC interview.
Erdogan has embraced what Ataturk had rejected: reviving the Ottoman legacy and religious values. Erdogan’s Turkey is staunchly Muslim. If Ataturk wanted to mold European generations of Turks, Erdogan’s focus, as he himself has explained, is “to raise religious generations” of Turks. Ataturk’s Turkey was a secular, European and Western-oriented Republic, while Erdogan’s Turkey is a conservative, Islamic and neo-Ottoman Republic looking to re-activate the Ottoman past.
How will Erdogan achieve his political ambitions and imperial renewal?
With hard and soft power; with mortar and influence in which religion is the focus. It almost illustrates the Islamic poem which Erdogan read in 1997, and for which he suffered a ten-month jail sentence:
The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.
Like the emperors and sultans before him, Erdogan has demonstrated a lavish appetite for mosque building. Majestic, expensive, and massive mosques are being built from Turkey to Albania, Russia, Germany, England, Switzerland, the United States and other countries. All construction, costing millions of liras, are funded by Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate General for Religious Affairs, which operates under strict government supervision. Building majestic mosques marking the geopolitical frontiers of the Ottoman Empire with mosques and converting key Christian landmarks to mosques, as is the case of Hagia Sophia, is a keystone of Erdogan’s policy.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Western Balkans were wavering between East and West, choosing between joining the European Union – a desire that would be difficult to achieve – or remaining loyal to the old ally on the Bosphorus, Turkey. Even before Erdogan’s tenure in politics, Turkish diplomacy seized the moment to showcase what Turkey had to offer to the impoverished countries, which had been made even poorer through several decades under the dictatorship of the proletariat of the Communist governments. The centuries-old Ottoman legacy, Islamic religion or Islamic sentiment, and monetary support and funding played a role in Turkey’s success influencing people and governments in the Western Balkans, in the Caucasus and to a degree in Russia.
If one visits Tirana, Albania’s capital, it is impossible to miss the majestic structure of a new Erdogan mosque, still under construction. The mosque, with its library, conference space, Islamic center and Islamic school attached to the complex, is the largest mosque in the Balkans. It is strategically located, next to the Albanian Parliament, to the See of the Democratic Party of Albania, at the intersection of a new street named after President George W. Bush, and it has the capacity to accommodate 5,000 faithful; the 6,4583-square-foot compound features four minarets. The majestic, neo-Ottoman-style mosque is financed by Turkey as a gift to Albanian Muslims, the majority religion in the country. Along with the mosque, a milder Turkish Sunni Islam is propagated in Albania, which can easily win over extreme forms of Wahhabism and other forms of extremism, which have made their presence known in Albania.
Next comes the soft power of Turkish soap-opera propaganda. These are broadcast on Albanian television and are a hit in Albania, Kosovo and other countries in the Balkans where soft power politics plays with the sentiments of the once Ottoman-Muslim citizens. Soap operas like Ezel, LaleDevri, and others broadcasted via Albanian television showcase Turkish lifestyle, language, and history as examples to be mimicked. As a result Albanians have a special preference for and trust in Turkish products. Erdogan’s Turkey is definitively leaving a hard and soft political, religious, and cultural imprint among its formerly subjugated people and territories.
Will making Hagia Sophia a mosque help Erdogan, his party, and Turkey’s plans for the future?
The short answer is, “No.” Even if the conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque was going to proceed, hastily as planned, the flame and flair of the conversion will be short-lived. So far, the reaction from world leaders, including Pope Francis, has been negative. Given that Hagia Sophia has been part of UNESCO World Heritage since 1985, UNESCO issued a strong statement calling on Turkish authorities to seriously reconsider their decision and initiate a dialogue, stating,
without delay, in order to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage, the state of conservation of which will be examined by the World Heritage Committee at its next session. It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with UNESCO, that would affect physical access to the site, the structure of the buildings, the site’s moveable property, or the site’s management.
The Islamic Society of North America also made a strong statement on July 14, 2020, against the conversion, for the sake of the people and religious co-existence, stating:
The conversion of Hagia Sophia will reopen the wounds of the Greek Orthodox Christians, Russian Orthodox Christians, and Christian communities across sectarian bounds around the world . . . We appeal to our peace-loving supporters of Turkish democracy to save it from falling into the same chaos of religious intolerance as India has.
Hagia Sophia – the museum, the work of Ataturk’s Turkey – ought to continue as a museum representing all and belonging to all believers, Christians and Muslims alike. It is a sign of Turkey’s openness to dialogue and interreligious co-existence. Turkey cannot cancel its Christian past; after all, Hagia Sophia was built centuries before Islam as a religion even existed! It was Seat of the Greek Orthodox Synod and See of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Christian citizens, being Greek, Armenian, Syrian, or Jews, are as much part of Turkey as are its Muslim-majority citizens.
To use the words of the sixth-century Greek poet Paul the Silentiary, who sang the praises of Hagia Sophia, Turkey should not “give way” and “mosque” Hagia Sophia, as much is at stake.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!