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Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present - Ali Yaycıoğlu and Patricia Blessing

Berkeley Forum - Georgetown University - Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs

The first khutbah in Hagia Sophia after 86 years was read by Ali Erbaş, head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs, on July 24, 2020. Erbaş ascended the minbar decorated with green standards, holding a sword, two insignia signifying that a mosque is a space not only for the connection between believers and God, but also believers and political authority. Contrary to common belief, in the Ottoman context the sword was not the symbol of conquest, but rather of the ruler. Still, both for those who advocated for the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque and those who opposed this change, this first Friday prayer signifies a reconquest. 

The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque has been on the political agenda of Islamist and conservative nationalists in Turkey at least since the 1950s. It was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who decided on the conversion of the monument from museum back to mosque, as he had promised during his tenure as the first Islamist mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. To some of his followers, Erdoğan is the second conqueror of the city, after Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II. This belief requires creative interpretation of Quran passage 34: 15, baldatun tayyibatun wa rabbun ghafurun (literally translated, “a fair land and an indulgent lord”). In the Erdoğanist interpretation, the verse alludes to Mr. Erdoğan himself, by way of his middle name, Tayyip, and the “fair land” is Istanbul, helped by the fact that the numeric values (abjad) of the two words’ Arabic letters conveniently add up to 857, the year of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in the Islamic calendar. 

Given these promises and narratives, why did Erdoğan wait for so many years to make this decision? What does he expect from this move, for his domestic and foreign policy? Would it help him solve the political crisis caused by his diminishing popularity, especially among youth and women? Although this is clearly Erdogan’s decision, why did he prefer that this political move be covered by a legal ruling by the Council of State, instead of a presidential decree? These are important questions, but in this essay, we would like to divert the conversation and discuss how the conquest narrative, which is shared by those who oppose and support the decision, does not do justice to Hagia Sophia and its architecturally, spiritually, and emotionally charged history. 

We think that both supporters and opponents of the decision in Turkey, the United States, and Europe share a narrative of conquest, based on an Ottoman/Byzantine, mosque/church, Muslim/Christian, and secularism/Islamism binary. Those who oppose the decision often focus on the building as a Christian monument, which was converted into a mosque by the Ottomans as a result of conquest in 1453, into a museum by Atatürk in 1934, as a result of his secular policies, and now back into a mosque by an Islamist and populist leader. This narrative emphasizes how a Christian monument survived in a Muslim context, from the Ottoman Empire to secular Turkey or today’s new regime. Those who are in favor of the decision, namely conservative Muslims in Turkey and some other Muslim countries, as well as Turkish nationalists, also focus on the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople as the legitimizing factor. They see the 1934 decision as an unnecessary concession to the West, which deeply hurt pious Muslims. The recent decision also argues that because Hagia Sophia was part of Mehmed II’s endowment (waqf), its status as mosque could not possibly have been removed, effectively rendering the 1934 decision illegal. (The larger implications of this discussion for the status of former waqf property in Turkey are potentially extensive.)