Re-Conversion of Hagia Sophia into a Mosque a Very Trumpian Move

As the Turkish President signed a decree last week converting the ancient Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque, the UN cultural agency (UNESCO) said it "deeply regrets the decision" made "without prior discussion." It also called on Turkey to abide by its “legal commitments and obligations” in accordance with its status as a museum, on the World Heritage List. Credit: UN News/Jing Zhang
  • Opinion by Ian Williams (new york)
  • Inter Press Service
  • Ian Williams* is President of the Foreign Press Association in New York, a former President of the UN Correspondents' Association (UNCA) and author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations in Peace and War.

The late Roman mother church of Orthodoxy was turned into a mosque by the Ottomans when they took the city in 1453, and then converted to a museum by Kamel Ataturk, the secularist founder of Modern Turkey.

It is highly unlikely that there is any Muslim left alive who ever worshipped in the building, restored with taxpayer's and tourist cash over most of a century.

The move by Erdogan-appointed courts also violates UNESCO conventions on World Heritage Sites, which include the whole area around Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi palace and associated mosques.

It is a godsend to Greek nationalists, since ironically its conflation of nationalism and religion puts it on a level with Greece, which, after a century is still stalling on building an official mosque in Athens.

He expediently evokes Al Aqsa, but provides a precedent for a similarly loaded Israeli court to "hand back" Al Aqsa to those who want to repossess the site of Herold's temple.

As a combined blunder and illegality, it overturns a wise decision by Kamal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. And, in fact, most of the region and indeed the world, has a habit of viewing the past through the "patriotic" prism of modern day nationalism with imaginatively reconstructed histories.

When Erdogan began, he showed signs of an ecumenical reaching out to Christians, Kurds and other minorities, but those days are long gone and he has been throwing away advantages, not least the real restrictions on the Orthodox Church to which the de-museification of Hagia Sophia is just a tweak.

If he were less tunnel-visioned, he could make Istanbul a pilgrimage center, a world capital that with its potential attraction to both Orthodox Christians and Muslims. would make Rome or Mecca look like one-ring Circus. Following World War I, Kemal Ataturk's republican government showed itself blind not only to the city's aesthetic grandeur but also to its sacred history. As Erdogan and his party know, Ataturk and his colleagues were no particular friends of Islam and had no sentimental attachment to the Ottomans they had overthrown, who had been dangerously cosmopolitan, encompassing far too many ethnic identities to be truly "Turkish," in the new ethnonationalist mode.

Even as a mosque, the Hagia Sophia had kept its Greek name, "Holy Wisdom." Astute Islamic architects – far from demolishing it like Modi's Hindu nationalists, added minarets and made it the very model of the Ottoman Mosque.

Mehmet the conqueror of Constantinople did not see himself as replacing its glories, but more inheriting them. For the Ottomans, he took the title Kayser i Rum, Caesar of Rome, and many of their Greek-speaking subjects became partners of the sultans in running the empire.

Modern nationalist mouth-frothing notwithstanding, the people of "Constantinople" regarded themselves as Romans, not Greeks and called their city Stam Polis – the city – from which the Turks made Istanbul!

After Ataturk demoted it from imperial capital to provincial town, whatever it was called, they city went into economic decline. Its Greek population, although exempt from the unethical population exchanges between Greece and Turkey shrank and most of those remaining were driven out in a politically inspired pogrom in the 1950s—not because they were Christians but because they were considered a fifth column for Greeks nationalists who still cherished the idea of retaking the city. Nevertheless, a small remnant survived. They still call themselves Romans, "Rumi."

Chief among the remaining Romans is His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch, who in the eyes of the world's Orthodox is, if not infallible, first among equals and certainly merits a twenty-one mass salute or whatever the equivalent for patriarchs, along with the pope.

However, Ataturk's secularist and nationalist successors regarded him as merely the head of the church in Turkey. They insist that the patriarch be a Turkish citizen, but for fifty years have kept closed the only seminary that trained priests in Turkey. Hidden in a corner in the Phanariot district, poor Bartholomew cannot assemble the pilgrims the way the pope can in Saint Peter's Square.

This is unenlightened policy. and just plain bad for business. The great religions may have had their hearts in Mecca and Jerusalem, but their heads were in Istanbul and Rome. Istanbul combines both. It is the original ecumenical pilgrimage place, offering you patriarchate and caliphate in one, churches and mosques to die for, and relics galore.

Ataturk's followers were equally ambivalent about the glories of the sultans' Topkapi Palace where the sultans, doubling up as caliphs, amassed the Amanat—"the Sacred Trusts." Still on display is a collection of the Prophet's facial hairs, head hairs, and even the fragment of one of his teeth.

This is the sort of thing that the devout are willing to pay to see. Topkapi is a reminder of a time when Istanbul was to Islam what Rome is to Catholicism. Similarly, the patriarchate is testimony that the city still hosts the head of hundreds of millions of Orthodox.

There are allegedly sixty hairs of the Prophet's beard in the collection, although only one was on display last time I looked. That number may seem excessive, if not so much as Voltaire's suggestion of building a fleet with wood from the Cross and floating it on the Virgin's milk, but ancient accounts report Muhammad giving away his beard and hair clippings in his latter days, which would surely have been cherished by his followers.

Indeed, in contrast, some of the more dubious relics in the Topkapi were inherited from the Christians, such as the skull fragment, arm, and hand of St. John the Baptist. The provenance of Moses's staff, Joseph's turban, and Abraham's cooking pot, not to mention King David's sword, all seem to lack the chain of evidence of the more directly Islamic relics such as the hairs and the Prophet's "honored standard" that the caliphs used to rally the faithful in arms.

Some of these relics were brought to Istanbul from Mecca to protect them from the Wahabi upsurge, with its disdain for tombs, relics, and such quasi-idolatrous habits of Turkic Muslims. The relics are displayed as museum pieces, aids to study rather than agents of sanctity, and most of the foreign\ tourists arriving seem to be in search of secular history.

They spend as much if not more of their time gawking at the sundry bejeweled tchotchkes of the sultans as they do at the relics. They show the same lack of reverence as the echoing tour parties trotting at the double through the Hagia Sophia, which has been for decades in a dusty state of perpetual repair and renewal: more scaffolding than mosaics.

Küçük Ayasofya, the little Hagia Sophia, the former church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus. Its dome was a forerunner and template for the big one. It gives a better impression of the original church than its larger descendant.

Its marble walls survived, and around its interior frieze the original Greek inscription to the emperor Justinian and empress Theodora survives intact after fifteen hundred years. Its serenity and dignity is far more likely to evoke the city's glory days than its quasi-fossilized successor further up the hill.

Istanbul is ready to step up to its destiny. But not enough people know about it. All it lacks is a strong marketing campaign with the appropriate state sponsorship to give the Vatican a run for the tourist purse. The vision is clear; all that is needed is the implementation.

This city could be the crossroads between Islam and the West. The history of the caliphate, the Islamic relics and the Ecumenical Patriarch, the churches and mosques, if given the chance, could begin to pull in the pious punters from across the globe.

It may seem odd for a secularist like myself to advocate it, but many people who could not sprint across the road to save their lives have waved their pom-poms for the economic benefits of staging the Olympics.

More seriously, though, it must surely be a good stereotype buster to remind people of the centuries of coexistence of Christianity and Islam in Istanbul during a period when the Inquisition burnt brightly in the West and the Orthodox emperors hosted mosques within the walls even before the "Fall of Constantinople."

If the new administrators of the Hagia Sophia show similar reverence for history as those looking after the Küçük Ayasofya, the little Hagia Sophia, down the hill from the big one, the reckless decision could be ameliorated. Its dome was a forerunner and template for the big one. It gives a better impression of the original church than its larger descendant.

Its marble walls survived, and around its interior frieze the original Greek inscription to the emperor Justinian and empress Theodora survives intact after fifteen hundred years. Its serenity and dignity is far more likely to evoke the city's glory days than its quasi-fossilized successor further up the hill.

But a gesture from Erdogan to the Rumi and patriarchal office and seminary would go even further to build bridges to the Orthodox world. Erdogan does not do sensitive but if he wants his missile supply assured, he could remember Putin's espousal of Orthodoxy!

* Ian Williams is also a senior analyst who has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, including the Australian, The Independent, New York Observer, The Financial Times and The Guardian.

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© Inter Press Service (2020) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service