Those were very tense days for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – both on the domestic front, due to the approaching anniversary he cares about most, that of the attempted coup against him, and on the international front because of manoeuvres in Syria and Libya involving Turkey and the other great players present there. Within this Erdoganian framework, on July 10th, the Turkish State Council annulled the decision with which on November 24th, 1934, Turkey’s President of the Republic Mustafa Kendal had converted Hagia Sophia into a museum. Almost a century had gone by and a few minutes later President Erdogan turned that monumental complex back into a mosque, just as it had been since the 1453 Ottoman conquest.
Ever since it had been built by the Emperor Justinian in 537, Hagia Sofia had been the largest Christian cathedral. In 1204, it was desecrated during the fourth crusade and violently converted into a Latin rite Catholic cathedral by crusaders and then used as the epicentre of Rome’s new attempt to impose Uniatism, based on the Oriental Churches but loyal to Rome. This was an attempt that reached its apex with the famous Council of Florence in 1439. It would be important to reconstruct the meaning of those years and the extremely tense celebration held on December 12th, 1452, precisely at Hagia Sophia, in the presence of Emperor Constantine XI and many delegates.
Hagia Sophia has seen a great deal of history, and a turbulent one, thus one cannot even be surprised by an administrative change occurring a century later. One cannot however pretend that it was normal for President Erdogan to embark on a surprise visit there on July 19th this year. He wished to personally check the state of work being done to allow the mosaics to be covered during religious functions before their official beginning on Friday, July 24th.
So things have changed. There was nothing wonderful per se in having had to change a place of worship into a museum. There was an obvious sense in this of having abandoned the experiences of the life of a place a worship, with its well-known painful history. However, in the case of Hagia Sophia, one could say that it is precisely the coexistence between the immensity and the importance of the building and the coexistence within it, for almost a century, of unforgettable Byzantine mosaics and Islamic medallions, that provided everyone with a perception of something exceptional. In welcoming next to those masterpieces of Christian art the religious symbols of former conquerors, the cathedral and its cupola sent a message of something more than a museum, perhaps one could say a new message for the entire Mediterranean tormented by wars also fought in the name of God. That museum expressed the idea that the absolutisms of believers can be overcome; that space can be preserved to allow a path respectful of both history and its truth as well as its complexity.
This event should therefore be fully understood regards to its enormity, because by converting Hagia Sophia back into a mosque after a century, Erdogan has in reality tried to tear up the Document on Human Fraternity signed on February 4th 2019 in Abu Dhabi, by Pope Francis and by the Imam of al-Azhar. In that document it is stated that “Freedom is a right of every person: each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action. The pluralism and the diversity of religions, colour, sex, race and language are willed by God in His wisdom, through which He created human beings. This divine wisdom is the source from which the right to freedom of belief and the freedom to be different derives. Therefore, the fact that people are forced to adhere to a certain religion or culture must be rejected, as too the imposition of a cultural way of life that others do not accept.”
Erdogan has tried to abolish this grandiose objective, proposing once again an era of crusades and conquests, or re-conquests. Perhaps those who see in this choice a domestic priority to recover consensus by fuelling the nationalist sense of the Turks who are now turning theirs back on him, due to daily economic problems, are right. In that case, the 45% of Turks who have dared declare that they do not appreciate this choice, albeit in the absence of a free press, prove that this decision was almost a flop. But those who see another priority might be right, a priority linked to joining the ferocious war for the conquest of Islam, now fought by the Wahabis against the Khomeinists, with his apparently“non-Ottoman” Islam that is actually anti-modern like that of its two opponents. As at times happens, the truth is perhaps somewhere in between and Erdogan’s“caliphate” project may not have provided the hoped-for results, seeing that the only official support has come from Cypriot Turks and Hamas: not a great deal. But what have the Europeans seen in the Hagia Sophia decision? European chancelleries appear to have seen very little and this is probably an aspect that the Turkish leader had correctly expected. So Erdogan’s decision, with little attention paid by political Europe as his accomplice, risks succeeding in achieving one of its objectives precisely here in Europe, that of strengthening anti-modern Christianity, a crusaders’Christianity as a reaction to a conqueror’s Islam. It is precisely what the Sultans did not do, when they instead legally bought Hagia Sophia from the Christian authorities. Of course, no one obliged them to this, not can anyone imagine that a subject might answer the Sultan saying,“this asset is not for sale.” Hence the deal was also an acknowledgement of the other.
The disconcerting decision made by the Turkish administrative tribunal with that deed is the reason for the annulment of the decree issued by Mustafa Kemal – better known as Ataturk – revealing as evident Erdogan’s binary culture and that of those who hid the intentions: “We bought it. We own it”. We who? The religious entity to which the Hagia Sophia was entrusted by the Sultan obviously became a state entity when modern Turkey was created. Erdogan could have issued a presidential decree just as his predecessor had. But he did not. He wanted the decision to be made by the State Council so as to identify his idea of a national and nationalist Islam with that of the national state. The enormity of what Erdogan has done lies above all in this. Hence he now has two problems to address: on all the symbols shown during his visit, the Hagia Sophia complex is named using its Greek name and this name is still written using Latin letters.
This reveals the anti-Ottoman characteristics of Erdogan’s conquest of the Hagia Sophia. The Sultans reasoned in terms of heirs of an empire that was experienced and perceived as universal, and they, therefore, understood its complexity. They were not nationalists, so much so that it was the Sultan himself who went in search of the man who was to reopen the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and then once again it was the Sultan who created in the city the first Armenian archbishopric that had never existed before.
So yes, with Erdogan’s conquest of the Hagia Sophia, Europe is called upon to discover the enormity of the Document on Fraternity, the one Erdogan intends to destroy, the Document that the Europeans, media included, have almost ignored since the day it was signed in Abu Dhabi. Of course, that Document does not speak of ancient symbols of universal values but is well aware that for as long as the Cupola of Hagia Sophia is outlined in the sky above Istanbul, there will be no conquest. And coexistence cannot reduce a religion to being the symbol of a nation and an ethnic group to becoming the master of the only religion in that nation.
The blow that Christian Europe has not understood is precisely the nationalist and anti-modern one, the real heart of Erdogan’s new policy. Like all other faiths, Christianity is not a faith of stones but one for human beings, hence the problem is not “owning” Hagia Sophia but rather the anti-modern taste involved in returning it into a mosque for presidential ukaze.
It is pointless to speak of dreams. On the day the decision was made by the Turkish State Council, Erdogan was not dreaming, he was trading. Did he need his pulpit or a universal cathedral? And what would it cost him to just take it? On the days that preceded this move he was told it would not be expensive, in fact it would be free at the American table and cheap at the Russian one. And what about Europe? These accounts were probably these most problematic ones. Excluding diplomatic consequences, perhaps he calculated that this would have given rise to anti-modern sentiments; after all, a Caliph always needs a few crusaders.
The only person really suffering for the loss of Hagia Sophia is thus Pope Francis, the architect of the Document that the nationaliser of Islam appears to want to shred. But Erdogan’s Scholars of Islam are not even aware of the existence of that document. It is difficult to envisage that they know of it since no Turks attended the great theological debate that followed the signing. Turkey’s nationalised Islam does not communicate with the world or to it. Nationalised Islam repeats what the Head of State says since he is also its leader.
But the Hagia Sophia’s cupola remains in the skies of Istanbul and it is not just one of the thousands of Christian saints, but the Hagia Sophia, hence divine Knowledge, that Knowledge that according to the Document signed in Abu Dhabi intended that we be different, in spite of Erdogan.
So the real message then comes from Istanbul to Europeans means understanding Erdogan’s anti-modern plans and the vision of Islam he wishes to represent. Understanding this would make it easier to understand that it would be important to answer not with equal anti-modernity, but with greater modernity.
Photo: Yasin AKGUL / AFP
If you liked our analysis, stories, videos, dossier, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).