CNEWA Connections: Reflections on Hagia Sophia

On Friday 10 July, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the increasingly authoritarian president of Turkey, following a decision of the high court, declared that one of the great historic landmarks in his country, Hagia Sophia (classical Greek: hagia sophia; Turkish: ayasofya), would begin functioning as a mosque after having been a museum since 1935. The move was criticized and condemned in many quarters. Pope Francis said he was “deeply pained” by the move. The Russian Orthodox Church, the Prime Minster of Greece, UNESCO, the World Council of Churches have all issued responses ranging from disappointment to dismay.

One of the most iconic and recognizable buildings in all of Turkey, and popular tourist destination, Hagia Sophia, “Holy Wisdom” (wisdom here referring to Christ) was for almost a thousand years the imperial church of the Roman Empire until its fall on 29 May 1453 and the death of  Constantine XI, the last Roman Emperor.

Before the Great Schism of 1054, Christianity west of Syria and Mesopotamia was united.  Rome was the city where Peter and Paul were martyred and buried and where the bishop of Rome, the pope and successor of St. Peter, lived and held a position of primacy and honor in Christianity. Rome was also the home of highly revered basilicas. Nevertheless, for many centuries the center of gravity for Christianity — culturally, politically and theologically — was in Constantinople.  

Hagia Sophia is seen in on Istanbul 30 June 2020. (photo: CNS/Murad Sezer, Reuters)

While Hagia Sophia was not considered the caput et mater, “the head and mother,” like  the Basilica of St. John Lateran, it was — in different forms — the imperial church of Christianity for almost a thousand years.  

Over the centuries, the power of the Western church grew and the center of gravity began to shift towards Rome. At the same time, wars with Persia and Muslim armies, as well as invasions from Asia — Mongols and different Turkic groups — put great pressure on the Byzantine Empire and weakened it. One group, the Ottoman Turks, rose to prominence and set up the Ottoman Empire (1299-1923). Step by step the Ottomans took over the old Byzantine Roman Empire and captured Constantinople on 23 May 1453. The city became the capital of the Ottoman Empire and Hagia Sophia became one of the several imperial mosques in the city. The icons in the former church were covered over, and a mihrab, or Muslim pulpit, was added, as were later minarets.  

The Ottoman Empire and Sultanate was dissolved after World War I. Mustfa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), a reformer, founder of the Republic of Turkey and its first president (1223-1938), established Turkey as a secular state. One of the things he did was to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935. Now in 2020 Recep Erdoğan is reversing that decision.

“The ancient adage ‘to the victor belongs the spoils’ is slowly being called into question. Among those things considered ‘spoils’ are the cultural heritage and sacred places of ‘the other’ — especially when ‘the other’ is a conquered population.

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

Turning sacred places from one religion to that of the dominant or conquering power is nothing new. It is not uncommon that conquerors even destroy the sacred places of the conquered. In Jerusalem, the Temple Mount precinct has changed hands — often violently — between Babylonians, Jews, Christians and Muslims. A striking example of this can also be found in the Mesquite-Catedral of Cordoba in Spain. Originally a temple to the Roman god Janus, it was made into an Arian Christian Church in 572. In 756 an Islamic Emirate was set up in Cordoba. The existing church was then turned into a mosque until in 1236 when it was turned back again into a Christian Church. The last “conversion” from a mosque to a church introduced many — in my opinion — architecturally inelegant and awkward elements into a beautiful structure.  

But the problem is not merely a Christian-Muslim one. A similar problem existed with bloody consequences in Ayodhya, India.  Hindus considered a site there to be the traditional birthplace of the god Rama. The conflict involved around the question of whether the Babri Masjid, a Muslim mosque, was built on a demolished or reconstructed Hindu Temple. The mosque was destroyed by a mob on 6 December 1992. More than 2,000 people died in the riot. In August 2019, the Indian Supreme Court declared that the land was to be handed over for the building of a Hindu temple and the Sunni Waqf (charitable foundation) be given an alternate five acres to build a mosque. One can doubt that this has done anything to improve the already tense and, at times, violent relations between the Hindu and Muslim communities.

Erdoğan has argued that turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque is an act of Turkish sovereignty. God knows, there is historical precedent for it on many sides. However, one also wonders if there aren’t other issues at play. Times change and the developments in International Humanitarian Law (I.H.L.) and International Human Rights Law (I.H.R.L.) show a slow but definite evolution on how the rights of others, especially the vanquished, are to be protected.  

The ancient adage “to the victor belongs the spoils” is slowly being called into question. Among those things considered “spoils” are the cultural heritage and sacred places of “the other” — especially when “the other” is a conquered population. After some admittedly superficial research, I have found nothing in I.H.L. which would prevent Turkey from turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque.

However, that does not come near to answering whether just because a government can do something means that it should do it. In an increasingly interconnected world, gestures (and especially gracious gestures) between nations and peoples can be important.

One might expect that the great religious traditions of the planet would be rich sources for such gracious gestures. It seems we still have a long way to go — on all sides.

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