During its 1,500-year reign as the architectural crown jewel of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia has served as a Byzantine cathedral, an Ottoman mosque and — for the past eight decades — a museum that has drawn tens of millions of visitors of all faiths and none.
Now, Turkey’s president has thrown his weight behind longstanding calls from his conservative and nationalist supporters to turn the building back into a mosque, triggering a divisive national debate.
On Thursday, Turkey’s highest administrative court — the council of state — held a hearing on a legal challenge brought by a Turkish association that has long campaigned for the annulment of the Hagia Sophia’s museum status. A decision is due to be published in the next fortnight.
A survey by Istanbul Economics Research found that 47 per cent of the public supported turning the monument into a mosque, while 38 per cent wanted it to stay as a museum.
But Mr Erdogan has made clear what outcome he wants. “God willing, after the decision by the council of state, we will pray in the Hagia Sophia,” he told a meeting of ruling party officials last month.
The debate has drawn alarm in Greece, which wants to protect the historical memory of the Byzantine empire, and in the US. Greek government spokesman Stelios Petsas warned on Thursday that changing the museum’s status risked creating “a huge emotional chasm between the Christians of the world and Turkey”.
The US secretary of state Mike Pompeo this week urged Turkey to preserve its status as a museum “as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all”.
Yet such warnings have played into Mr Erdogan’s efforts to use the issue to bolster his credentials as a strong leader who is working to restore Turkey’s status as a global power and as the spiritual centre of the Muslim world. “We will never resort to seeking your permission or your consent,” he said last month in a retort to warnings from other countries on the Hagia Sophia. “Do you rule Turkey, or do we?”
Critics have accused the Turkish president of playing games with Turkey’s cultural heritage in order to distract from the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. Ahmet Davutoglu, a former prime minister who now leads a conservative opposition party, recently warned Mr Erdogan: “Stop using our sacred places and our shared symbols as a [political] card whenever you are in trouble.”
But Ayse Zarakol, an expert in international relations at Cambridge university, said that the row might succeed — at least briefly — in diverting the public’s attention. “Recovering this symbol of imperial sovereignty appeals to both Islamists and nationalists,” she said. “But it’s also a distraction from the immediate agenda of the day.”
Commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and completed in 537, the Hagia Sophia has long been admired by Christians, Muslims, and non-believers.
The Byzantine chronicler Procopius described its giant dome as appearing “not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven by that golden chain”.
Over the centuries, it accrued a medley of different religious symbols. Its stunning mosaics and frescoes depict Jesus Christ, his mother Mary and a succession of Byzantine emperors. Four minarets were added during almost five centuries of use as an Ottoman mosque, along with giant black and gold disks inscribed with the names of God, the Prophet Mohammed and the most important Muslim Caliphs.
In 1934, after almost five centuries as a mosque, the building was turned into a museum — a symbol of the radical secularising project launched by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.
Since the 1990s, Muslims have been able to pray in a small space called the sultan’s pavilion. But some in conservative and rightwing circles want to go further. Ilyas Topsakal, the deputy rector of Istanbul University, told a Turkish news outlet that the current set-up of the Hagia Sophia was “deeply wounding” to the Turkish nation because it gave the impression of being a church.
Yusuf Kaplan, a columnist for the Islamist newspaper Yeni Safak, said that keeping it as a museum served to “mummify our history . . . and to destroy our historical awareness”.
If turned into a mosque, the Hagia Sophia would still be open to tourists. But critics say it would result in some of its frescoes and mosaics being hidden behind curtains and carpets to comply with interpretations of Islam that forbid the depiction of human and animal forms.
Zeynep Ahunbay, a historian and a member of the Hagia Sophia’s scientific committee, said it would be “crazy” to do that. “It is an exceptional monument of world importance,” she said. “It has to be presented with all its artistic and architectural elements.”
The council of state may yet find a way to delay the decision. That would enable Mr Erdogan to use the Hagia Sophia as a talking point “to remind his base why they should support him and why they should continue to fear Turkey’s secular elites”, said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkey programme at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Meanwhile, historians have despaired at the attempt to fit one of Turkey’s greatest monuments into what they see as a simplistic narrative.
It “boils down to a political choice between opening up to some kind of a universalistic understanding of heritage-sharing and . . . a nationalistic kind of sectarian reading of the past”, said Edhem Eldem, a professor of history at Istanbul’s Bogazici University. “Do you reduce it to what you consider is its legitimate function? Or do you go for some kind of a more global, human understanding?”