Stanford professor sees Hagia Sophia as a “time tunnel” linking Ottomans to the Roman Empire
With the conversion last month of the architecturally stunning Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a working mosque, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan fulfilled a long-held hope of many Turkish Muslims and of his own political party.
On July 24, for the first time in nearly 90 years, Muslim worshippers prayed together there, as the imam held a sword – a reminder to many of the conquest of the building throughout Turkish history.
The monumental structure was built in the sixth century by the Roman Emperor Justinian as the world’s largest cathedral. Later, it became the central building of Greek Orthodox Christianity and the Eastern Roman Empire, known as Byzantium. Hagia Sophia came under Catholic control for a few decades in the 13th century during the Crusades before the Byzantine emperor took Constantinople back.
Then, in 1453 after the Ottoman Empire had gained control, it became a mosque. After the founding of the modern state of Turkey, Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum in 1934.
Ali Yaycıoğlu, associate professor of history specializing in the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey in the School of Humanities and Sciences, discusses the building’s significance. For Yaycıoğlu, a native of Ankara, Turkey, conquest narratives – the notion that one conquering group claimed Hagia Sophia from the last and made it fully its own – belie the impact each had upon the other.
You have written that 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. What are the political and cultural forces at work that allowed the conversion to happen now?
For conservatives, Islamists and conservative nationalists, turning Hagia Sophia into a museum has been seen as a concession to the West, which has deeply hurt pious Muslims. It was, many right-wing thinkers argued, a symbol of self-colonization on the part of the founders of modern Turkey.
For the founders of the Turkish Republic, on the other hand, that decision symbolized a new claim to Turkey’s history; it was a matter of confidence, rather than concession. They thought that they were able to change the status of their most sacred building and transform it into a museum because they had the self-confidence to do this.
I do not mean that the founders of the Turkish Republic equally embraced the entire historical heritage of their lands. They are primarily Turkish nationalists. Still, they intended to establish a new relationship with the history of the land by demystifying the Ottoman imperial and religio-political narrative. The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum should be understood within this context. Yet, we should also see that, whatever the real motivation, the 1934 decision has a universal value. As a result of this decision, Hagia Sophia was appreciated as one of the most important world heritage sites in Turkey and in the world.
Today, the decision to convert it back into a mosque is very political and has to do with President Erdoğan’s diminishing popularity. It seems that Erdoğan thought this step, a demonstration of force to the domestic public and to the world, would help him show that he is still able to make radical decisions despite opposition.