There was never much doubt that the courts in Turkey would give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan what he wanted: on 10 July—a Friday, of course—the Turkish judiciary ruled that it was permissible to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque, and one hour later Erdogan announced that the building was open for Muslim prayers.
The Byzantine Empire with its capital in Istanbul (then known as Constantinople) was the remnant of the Roman Empire after the Western Half was overrun in 476. The Romans had been converted to Christianity 150 years earlier and Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya) was built as a Christian cathedral in Istanbul in the 530s, a century before the advent of Islam. Shortly after this, Byzantium recaptured the city of Rome—and indeed most of Italy—restoring for a time the contours of the old Roman Empire. Two centuries later, the Roman/Byzantine Empire was driven out of Italy again, but the Catholic Pope was able to retain control of Rome itself.
Over time, administrative and theological disputes developed between the Catholic Pope based in Rome and the Eastern Orthodox Patriarch based in Istanbul. A schism in the Christian world was formalized in the middle of the eleventh century by mutual excommunication of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches; the Orthodox instrument of excommunication was laid on the altar at Hagia Sophia in July 1054.
For the next four centuries, Hagia Sophia served as the centre of the Orthodox universe, with a half-century interruption from 1204 to 1261 during the Catholic occupation of Istanbul after the Fourth Crusade. In this period, under what is known as the Latin Empire, Hagia Sophia became a Catholic church. The restored, yet gravely weakened, Byzantine Empire would limp along for another 200 years. From 1380, Byzantium consisted of little more than Istanbul and in 1453 the city fell to the advancing Ottoman-Islamic Turks.
The story of the Ottoman capture of Istanbul in May 1453 is complicated. For example, the 21-year-old Ottoman Sultan, known in the West as “Mehmed the Conqueror” and known to the Turks as Fatih, had employed Christian mercenaries to do the heavy lifting in putting an end to Byzantium. Still, the political effect—then and since—was the same: a trauma to Christendom that one of its ancient capitals was lost to Islam. Within the city, Fatih converted Hagia Sophia to a mosque and it would remain as such down to the end of the caliphate in the 1920s.
As with the fall of the city itself, Fatih and the conversion of Hagia Sophia was complex in its meaning and effects. The conversion was at once a testament to the power of the faith and the Imperial House, and also to the cultural advance—one might say modernity—of this last and greatest of the Islamic Empires. Profoundly impacted by the Renaissance, Fatih inaugurated a period of creativity and pluralism with no analogue in the Christian world of the time. For example, when the Jews were expelled from Spain a half-century later, it was to Constantinople they retreated.
In the aftermath of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire was replaced with a secular republic ruled over by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, an army officer who had defeated the British at Gallipoli in 1915 and then led the independence war (1919-23) that expelled the Allied occupation forces. Among the Atatürkist reforms was converting Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935.
Atatürk’s conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum was intended to curtail the power of Islamist-inclined forces within Turkey and as a signal of the direction Atatürk wanted to chart for Turkey—open, democratic, and multi-faith. Erdogan clearly wishes to send the opposite signal, having already constricted democracy: to reassert Turkey’s Islamic identity and the supremacy of one faith over the others.
Interestingly, however, while the messaging domestically has been demagogic, Erdogan has struck a much more conciliatory tone abroad, perhaps to try to blunt some of the criticism, which has come from all directions: Germany, Greece, even the Pope. In a telephone conversation with Russian ruler Vladimir Putin, Erdogan reassured him that “access to that unique monument of world civilisation (i.e. Hagia Sophia) would be guaranteed for all wishing to visit it, including foreign nationals, and the safety of the items sacred to Christians would be assured.”
Still, for all of Erdogan’s reassurances, it cannot be guaranteed that this action will not spark strife around the world and strengthen the narratives of extremists and radicals, Islamists and the far-Right, who wish to promote civilisational and religious strife. For the Islamists it hints at caliphal restoration and for the white far-Right it is a chance to claim once more than Christians are victims. This cost to international stability is being imposed for the narrowest interests of the Erdogan government—and it is not even likely to work.
This was an act of “cheap pandering to petty populism,” as Dennis Sammut, the director of LINKS Europe, explained. “[T]he move will please some diehards in the ruling AK [Justice and Development] Party, which Erdogan leads,” Sammut goes on, and it is a “slap in the face” of secularists and non-Muslims, an act meant to inflame as part of Erdogan’s culture war.
“Erdogan, already described by some as the modern day Sultan for the sweeping powers he has amassed for himself, has in recent years aspired also to become also a modern day Caliph, to who all Muslims look at for leadership and guidance,” Sammut tells us. “A gesture was needed to mark this, and Hagia Sophia’s return as a place for Muslim prayer is meant to be that.”
But, “Will this decision … strengthen Erdogan’s image among Muslims [around the world]? … The answer is probably not. Most Muslim governments in the world are currently much more concerned about radical extremists within their own mosques … By his unwise decision Erdogan has not only turned Hagia Sophia into a symbol of division between Muslims and Christians, but also between Muslims and Muslims.”