North Africa, West Asia

Hagia Sophia: between consecration and contestation

Should Hagia Sophia become a mosque? Or should it become a church?

Oguz Alyanak Alexandra Mateescu
3 December 2013
 Hagia Sophia Museum official website.

Image credit: Hagia Sophia Museum official website.

Should Hagia Sophia become a mosque? Or should it become a church? Clearly, keeping it in its current form as a museum is a matter of contestation in Turkey and abroad. Hagia Sophia is Turkey’s most visited museum. In 2012 alone, over 3 million visitors walked through its doors, dropping in 70 million liras/35 million dollars. However, there are certain ideals that money cannot buy, and sanctifying this secular space is one of them.

On 15 November 2013, following his attendance at the opening of a new carpet museum near the Hagia Sophia museum complex, the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç went in front of the cameras. With the adhan audible in the background, Arınç started his press release with a slip of the tongue, which seemed nothing if not intentional:

“Here we are, today, next to Aya Sofya [Hagia Sophia in Turkish] Cami [mosque], in Aya Sofya mosque’s courtyard, in its imaret [public soup kitchens were an extension of mosques during the Ottoman Empire]… Aya Sofya tells us something, but what?... Çok şükür [thank God] during my time [as a deputy], we had two developments that made us happy… We transformed two of our mosques carrying the name Aya Sofya into mosques, and opened them up for ibadet [religious practice]. They were already mosques, but used for other purposes. In Trabzon, the Aya Sofya mosque was a mosque for centuries… and then someone made a decision and turned it into a museum. The Turkish Republican state is a laik [secular], social democrat state and also a state of law. That means paying attention to the statutory law. One law in particular… number 6570, about renting property…states that are ibadethanes [places of worship] cannot be used for purposes other than ibadet. If we are a state of law, what we had to do was the following: We asked whether a mosque can be used according to this article of the law for purposes other than worship? We said no, it cannot. [In] the Aya Sofya mosque in Iznik, … some meddler says that this is a museum now, and starts issuing little pieces of papers as one lira tickets… but we took legal action, and without any hassle, opened Aya Sofya mosque [in Iznik] to worship two years ago during the Eid al-Adha prayer. Some people among us, three or four of them asked, why; do we lack mosques? But believe me, that not a single person from different religions or faiths said so… As we are thinking about Aya Sofya [in Istanbul], well, these are the thoughts that came to my heart. We look at this sad Aya Sofya and hope God permit that the days it will start smiling are near.”

Having transformed two museums likewise named “Aya Sofya”, in Iznik and Trabzon, into mosques, thus making them “smile” once again, the Deputy Prime Minister’s ambition to transform Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque is evident in the above quote. In fact, “Aya Sofya” Istanbul, like Iznik and Trabzon, is “already a mosque” in Arınç’s register. The preconceptions in his version of what “transformation” entails gains full effect in self-fulfilling (and logically improbable) statements such as “We transformed two of our mosques carrying the name Aya Sofya into mosques”.  The historical framework he uses, which goes as far back as Istanbul’s conquest by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453, is also designed to justify his claim that “Aya Sofya” is and always has been a mosque. 

Nevertheless, Arınç’s imaginary clashes with reality. Calling Hagia Sophia a mosque is not a speech act that has the power to raise a mosque out of this edifice upon utterance. Arınç’s imaginary conflicts with the realities on the ground. Indeed, Hagia Sophia’s history goes further back than 1453—making Arınç’s statement an ill-calculated historical assertion at best. And unlike the Deputy Prime Minister’s claims, people of different religions or faiths do have claims over Hagia Sophia, opting either to turn it into a church, or to keep it as a museum.

Hagia Sophia/Aya Sofya as a church and mosque: 360 AD - 1934 AD

Hagia Sophia has held a monumental power over its urban landscape for nearly 1500 years. Whether that landscape was called Byzantium, Constantinople, or Istanbul has shifted the source of that power, leaving us with a current structure that bears the mark of centuries of physical reshaping. Within the Byzantine Empire, the first church to be built on the site—the “Megale Ekklesia” or the “Great Church”—was inaugurated in 360 AD but was burned to the ground during political riots. Likewise, the subsequent Nika riots caused the reconstructed second church to burn down, along with nearly half of Constantinople in 532 AD. A few years later, the current structure with the iconic dome that made it an architectural marvel was commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, naming it “Aγία Σοφία” meaning “Holy Wisdom” in Greek. As a ceremonial centre for both religious and political rites, it came to serve as the primary church of Eastern Christianity as well as the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (with the exception of several decades in the thirteenth century when it was briefly converted into a Roman Catholic church).

Its endurance to this day has, from a historical standpoint, accrued to it a significant value as a singular and iconic example of Byzantine architecture. However, its survival was contingent on its transformation, both physical and symbolic, from Christianity to Islam. With the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453, Hagia Sophia was converted into the city’s first imperial mosque, known as Aya Sofya, under the Ottoman Empire. In order to function as such, most of the structure remained the same, but four minarets were installed, as well as a mihrab (wall-niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and a minbar (pulpit). Among the most prominent additions were two large hanging circular disks depicting the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, and the first four caliphs. Here, the idea of architecture as a kind of palimpsest on which motifs are written and re-written is a good way to describe how Hagia Sophia appears today. It is also relevant to the challenges posed in how to represent and conserve the structure that does justice to both its Islamic and Christian aspects. For example, in 2009, restoration work uncovered two Christian mosaics of seraphim (six-winged angels) on the sides of Hagia Sophia’s dome that had been covered up in 1847 during restoration work under Sultan Abdülmecit. The aim of striking a balance between these symbolic (and actual) layers of history, however, only came about with Hagia Sophia’s transformation into a museum. Seen through a historicizing lens, every layer and every sign of decay and reworking had something of interest to reveal. 

“Aya Sofya” as a museum: 1934 - today

In 1934, Hagia Sophia was declared by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey, to be a museum (Aya Sofya Müzesi) open to a public, and a proclamation was issued that through “this unique architectural monument of art [mankind will] gain a new institution of knowledge” (Nelson 2004: 180). In addition to reading this as an effort to secularize and modernize urban space—that of Istanbul, which served as the centre of the Islamic world and held the throne of the Caliphate for four centuries—this transformation was also a conversion in its own way, in the sense that the function of the site slowly transitioned from that of a building intended to be used to one meant to be viewed. Moreover, since the mid-nineteenth century the surrounding area was beginning to be refashioned to fit the ideals of the picturesque: cluttering structures were cleared away and beautification efforts added fountains and greenery. From this era onward, Hagia Sophia became a scenic vision for postcards and eventually the centerpiece of the ‘tourist bubble’ of modern-day Istanbul. In the end, then, Hagia Sophia is a site of many conversions, none of which can ever be entirely reversed.

The transformation of Aya Sofya Cami (mosque) into Aya Sofya Müzesi (museum) brought along heated debates—the latest episode introduced through the above-cited words of the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister. However, the debates ensuing his implicit wish to transform Hagia Sophia into a mosque are nothing new—considering that only a year ago, a large group of Muslims organized by the conservative Anatolian Youth Organization (AYO) rallied outside of Hagia Sophia, praying collectively and demanding of the Turkish government to change its status as a museum into a mosque; and a year before that, calls to transform the structure, this time into a church, were raised by a Greek-Orthodox Christian NGO, Free Agia Sophia Council of America (FASCA), located in the US AYO’s call was returned unanswered and FASCA’s attempt to visit Hagia Sophia and hold a liturgy within its walls were turned down by the Prime Minister of Turkey. In response to these demonstrations, Turkey’s Greek-Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew has repeatedly stated that a space representative of such a contested history would be better off being left as a museum:

“The selective presentation of the Church’s true history, a history that transformed nations and cultures, is unacceptable.”

His statement, while diplomatic, runs contrary to the long-standing, though largely weakened aspirations on the part of many Orthodox Christians to “redeem” Hagia Sophia and restore the Ecumenical Patriarchate to preside over it as a church. This desire originally gained momentum with the early nineteenth century Greek nationalist “Megale ideea” (the “Great Idea”), which tied hopes for an expansion of Greece into Asia Minor with the idea of a revived Byzantine Empire. The “Great Idea” no longer holds sway in any real sense, but it does continue to feed tensions over Hagia Sophia’s perceived meaning and use, as any Christian claims can be labeled a kind of fifth column (from the Patriarchate) or revanchism.  

At both ends, Christian and Muslim, the site’s ‘true’ religious significance is taken as transcendant and transhistorical, as each side dismisses Hagia Sophia’s past life on one side of the 1453 divide as a contingent mischance of history. This is one reason why its status as a museum, aside from the restriction on religious use of the building, has angered many. Museums historicize, and legislate over the ordering of time. In doing so they present a whole superabundance of meanings. Granted, museums are by no means neutral institutions, and their incorporation into vast networks of tourism and commerce are part of what provokes a sense of betrayal over the perceived sacredness of the site. Hagia Sophia’s image has already, possibly irrevocably, joined the repertoire of tourism marketing strategies that present Istanbul as an attractive destination worldwide. Can yet another conversion remedy these anxieties? Can the page simply be wiped clean? 

Islamicizing the landscape...

Although the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a mosque may seem improbable considering both its symbolic (mélange of religions finding material form in the lived world) and economic (major tourist attraction) impact, the transformation of other Hagia Sophias into mosques, as well as other attempts to Islamicize the “secular” urban landscape gives some credibility to people's fears. Islamist and secular claims over space have been a matter of ongoing contestation in Turkey. The construction of a mosque in Taksim’s Gezi Park which was a target in the Gezi Park protests this summer, was a project that has been pushed forward since the early 1990s. When the leader of the Islamist Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) came to power in 1996, one of his promises to his electorate was to construct a mosque in Taksim’s Istiklal Square, adjacent to Gezi Park. With the party closed down by a “post modern” coup d’etat in 1997, that dream was shelved. A dream of similar caliber, however, came true during the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s third term in power, where his Justice and Development Party (AKP) undertook a massive mosque project in Istanbul’s Çamlıca forests, located at Istanbul’s highest hilltop. The mosque, which is currently under construction, is built on 15,000 square meters. It will be “visible from all parts of the city, have a dome even larger than the ones previous architects [“our ancestors”] have built and the highest minarets in the world.”

During the Ottoman Empire, Sultans commissioned imperial mosques in major cities during their reign. The Fatih Mosque, Beyazıt Mosque, Yavuz Selim Mosque, Süleymaniye Mosque, Selimiye Mosque, Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) among others find themselves located on the hilltops of Istanbul today, watching over the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. For a city ruled by an empire where Islam was a major building block, the prevalence of Islamic institutions is by no means surprising. In a secular country such as Turkey, however, the ambition to undertake massive mosque projects, or transform existing churches into mosques seems reminiscent of decisions taken by the Sultanate. Hence the aptly fitting title of a Reuters news piece on the Çamlıca Mosque: “In Istanbul, a mosque fit for a sultan”.

…or addressing the growing demand for prayer space

Another way to think of the debates is to take a more pragmatic approach and ask: does Istanbul need more mosques? According to the president of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı), Prof. Dr. Mehmet Görmez, it does. At a meeting with the heads of mosque associations in Turkey earlier this year, Görmez stated that there are currently 85,000 mosques in Turkey—3,000 of which are located in Istanbul. For a city hosting over 10 million residents, 3,000 mosques may sound insufficient. Görmez mentions that on average, one third of the population in Turkey attends the Friday prayers and it is indeed a common scene that in big cities such as Istanbul, people pray outside of the mosques, in courtyards mostly, along other practicing Muslims. However, considering that mosques—unlike in the pre-Republican era where they were not only centres of religion, but also of education and culture—are rarely used for purposes other than worship, and bearing in mind that not every resident of Istanbul is a practicing Muslim (let alone, a believer in Islam), his call for building more mosques may need some critical revision.

Furthermore, it is hard to argue that in Istanbul, there is a growing demand coming from the residents of the city for undertaking new mosque projects—with the exception of newly urbanizing districts which were once located in the outer perimeters of Istanbul. The attempts to build a mosque in Çamlıca or transform existing churches into mosques, then, seems less concerned with addressing the growing demand for mosques and more a symbolic act to shape what the city communicates through its silhouette.

However, space cannot be thought separate from its users or inhabitants. It is, as Henry Lefebvre put it over twenty years ago in his seminal work, The Production of Space, socially produced. Cities, as urban spaces, are organic, in the sense that they resist or comply with the need to accommodate their residents. The city is a space of constant negotiation. The construction of a new building, or a destruction of an old one, the takeover of a building and its makeover by the new users, taking route A versus route B to go to work and getting stuck in traffic or lost in the back alleys…The city is interactive and needs to be thought of as always in the making.

The changing demographics of urban spaces and their constantly changing needs reflect upon the changing landscapes. The city as a lived experience “speaks”, in Saskia Sassen’s words. And it speaks through its interaction with its inhabitants. Keeping this in mind, one must seek answers to the questions that the Deputy Prime Minister brings to our attention: “Aya Sofya tells us something, but what?” Perhaps the best way to hear it is to attune our ears to the many dialects that both Hagia Sophia and Istanbul speak, and to keep them all equally in consideration.

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