A visitor takes a selfie at the Hagia Sophia as part of "Museum Selfie Day" in Istanbul, Turkey on January 16, 2019. Turkish President Erdogan has pledged to convert the museum, originally a cathedral, into a mosque. Photo: Ahmet Bolat / Anadolu Agency

On Monday, as Istanbul awoke to a contested election result between the Islamist party of the President and the secular party of the founder of the Turkish republic, another contentious dispute hung over the metropolis: the fate of the Hagia Sophia.

The Hagia Sophia, the most famous landmark of modern Istanbul, is also a testament to the city’s Christian past. Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, was the capital of the Roman and Byzantine empires, and the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

When the troops of Turkey’s Mehmed II marched into Istanbul in 1453, the Ottoman sultan ordered the cathedral be converted into a mosque. Church bells were torn down while the iconostases, walls of icons and religious paintings, were destroyed, along with all mosaic paintings of Christ. Mehmed II—better known as Mehmed the Conqueror—introduced Islamic features into the historic church, including a mihrab indicating the direction to Mecca, a minbar (pulpit) and four minarets.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—inspired and obsessed by his country’s Ottoman past—was probably thinking of Mehmed II when he pledged on March 27 that the Hagia Sophia would be become a mosque again, 83 years after it was “secularized” and converted into a museum. 

“Hagia Sophia will no longer be called a museum” he said, days before local elections. “Its status will change. We will call it a mosque.”

The pledge immediately drew criticism from the rival Republican People’s Party, the CHP.

“What difference would it make to label [Hagia Sophia] as a mosque when its function will remain as a museum? [Erdoğan’s] aim is to court votes through this,” said CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu.

Neo-Ottoman designs

Erdoğan’s statement was no surprise to anyone observing the Ottoman indulgences of the Turkish president. Three years ago, he staged a dramatic reception for his Palestinian counterpart Mahmud Abbas at a palace constructed in the Ottoman spirit and architectural style. On the main staircase, where the two leaders posed for a photo, were 16 soldiers dressed to replicate past military costumes, including those of the royal guard of Erdogan’s role model, Sultan Abdulhamid II.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands in front of 16 soldiers who represent the 16 Turkish states founded in the past at the presidential palace in Ankara, Turkey on January 12, 2015. Photo: Adem Altan / AFP

The Turkish leader has also toyed with the idea of restoring instruction in Ottoman Turkish in schools, which would require students to learn the Arabic script after nearly a century of using Latin characters. 

A wider policy of “neo-Ottomanism” aims to restore Turkish influence in Arab societies once ruled by the Ottoman Empire in the realms of politics, culture, economy, and cuisine. Erdoğan’s supporters often describe themselves as Osmanlitorunu, or “grandchildren of the Ottomans”—a line that the Turkish leader is incredibly proud of and bent on promoting.

But the Hagia Sophia is another matter altogether, due to its importance to both Christianity and Islam. Reverting to its pre-Islamic function as a cathedral is nearly out of the question in a Muslim country ruled by an Islamic party, while returning to its status as a mosque is bad politics for a government already accused of having a hidden Islamist agenda and, more recently, of shamelessly milking the New Zealand mosque massacre on the election trail.

Election ploy foiled?

From its construction at the orders of Emperor Justinian I in 537 AD until Mehmed II came along in 1453, the Hagia Sophia served as seat of the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, and briefly under the Fourth Crusade, as a Roman Catholic church. It was the pride and joy of the Byzantine Empire.

Subsequently, under nearly 500 years of Ottoman rule, Muslims saw it as a marvel of its age and a symbol of their empire’s prestige and art (even though they had neither designed nor built it). Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, revamped it as a museum in 1935.

“Talk of transforming Aya Sophia into a mosque is a recurrent topic before all elections” said Toni Alaranta, senior research fellow and Turkey expert at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs.

In the run-up to Turkey’s municipality elections, Erdoğan was seeking to brandish his Islamic credentials and maintain support for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). To justify his controversial position on the Hagia Sophia, the Turkish president pointed to ongoing disputes over the holiest site of Muslim worship in Jerusalem.

Speaking on Turkish television last week, he said: “Those who remain silent when Al-Aqsa Mosque is attacked, trampled, its windows smashed, cannot tell us what to do about the status of Hagia Sophia.” 

For Moscow-based Middle East analyst Dmitriy Frolovskiy, the campaign to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque represents a trend under Erdoğan’s rule“The pillars of secularism are getting further eroded,” he said, replaced by religious zeal and “certain levels of historic revanchism mixed with both ethnic and religious sentiments.” 

“We’ve seen the exodus of Christians going on for many decades and their population in the Middle East shrinking drastically. Plans to transform Hagia Sophia into a museum, although largely symbolic, only further add to the impression that religious minorities are not welcome,” Frolovskiy added. 

When it comes to the future identity of the famed landmark, “Turkey’s citizens are the only legitimate actors to stop Erdogan,” said researcher Alaranta. 

On Sunday night in Istanbul, Erdoğan conceded that his Islamist party had failed to maintain its longstanding mandate in areas across the city and country. “Every gain and every loss is the will of our people and also a requirement of democracy that should be acknowledged,” he said.

It remains to be seen whether the Turkish president will also concede on the fate of the Hagia Sophia.

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