At that time, Atatürk’s decision was seen as a gesture of goodwill towards the West. The church of Saint Sophia, which in Greek means “divine wisdom”, was the supreme church of Christendom for almost a millennium after it was inaugurated by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 537.
Today, it is Turkey’s top tourist destination, attracting more than 3.7 million visitors last year to admire its golden mosaics, considered masterpieces of medieval art and domes that hover 30 meters above the ground.
But for some Turks, secularizing the space insulted the memory of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet, who decreed that the cathedral would serve as a perpetual mosque after praying at its altar by capturing the Greek Byzantine capital in 1453.
Calls to convert him to a mosque came from the periphery until a decade ago. But in recent years, it has gained steam as fascination with Turkey’s Ottoman past grew, encouraged by the Erdogan government with Islamist roots, which has overturned many of Atatürk’s strict secular policies. A survey this month showed that nearly three-quarters of Turks now want to see Hagia Sophia open for Muslim prayer.
Few outside Turkey are satisfied with the idea. United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Ankara on Wednesday to maintain a museum in the Hagia Sophia church to show his “commitment to respecting religious traditions and the diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey” and ensure that the site remains accessible to all. Greece has complained to UNESCO, which has reportedly informed Turkey that World Heritage standards require it to consult with the UN culture agency before changing the status of a monument. UNESCO rejected a request for comment on the matter.
The dispute has exacerbated tensions with Athens, which was triggered this year by Turkey’s search for hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece says Ankara’s exploration activities are violating its maritime and Cyprus borders; the European Union has sided with its member states, threatening Turkey with sanctions.
Erdogan, who rejected Greece’s objections to the Hagia Sophia church, until recently resisted calls for it to become a mosque again, scolding the faithful for coveting the museum when they were unable to fill some of the other 3,200 mosques in Istanbul.
Earthly concerns may have changed your mind. Last year, during a highly contested mayoral election, the president reversed course and said Hagia Sophia should be a mosque again. His party still lost the vote, the first time the secular opposition gained control of the city in 25 years.
Istanbul’s new mayor, Ekrem İmamoğlu, a member of the secularist party founded by Atatürk, has said that Hagia Sophia should remain a museum. He called on the government to refrain from using the controversy “as an internal political device” at a time when it should focus on issues like the coronavirus pandemic.
The outbreak has dramatically slowed Turkey’s economy, which was already reeling from a recession last year. Discontent with double-digit inflation and an unemployment rate above 13 percent have brought support for Erdogan’s ruling party to the levels it last saw when it first took office in 2002.
“Erdogan is eager to shore up support, and his preferred strategy has been to strengthen his illiberal, nationalist, and Islamist positions. The conversion of Ayasofya it would reinforce that image on the international stage and could not earn him points in Europe, “said Merve Tahiroğlu, coordinator of the Turkey program at the Project for Democracy in the Middle East in Washington.
Ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world and heir to the bishops who once presided over the Hagia Sophia church, also fears international reverberations. He pleaded with the government this week to maintain the current state of Hagia Sophia as a symbol of “peaceful coexistence”.
“Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque will disappoint millions of Christians worldwide, and Hagia Sophia, which, because of the sacred, is a vital center where the East embraces the West, will fracture these two worlds,” he said. after mass in a church in Istanbul.
Bartholomew’s seat remains in Istanbul, a holdover from the Byzantine empire, but his flock of Greek Orthodox in the country. It has shrunk to just a few thousand after a century of economic and political pressure that forced most Christians in Turkey to leave. Few Christians even in Turkey harbor fantasies that Hagia Sophia will return to its original function as a church, said Mihail Vasiliadis, editor of the Greek newspaper Apoyevmatini in Istanbul.
Historians fear that the fight for the building may result in “a sloppy treatment of Hagia Sophia … that historical and archaeological evidence could be damaged and works of art hidden,” according to an open letter signed by dozens of academics on Wednesday.
Already, the state has appointed a muezzin to read the Hagia Sophia minarets call to prayer, and a separate mosque on its grounds houses the faithful. This May, a special prayer was recited in the building to commemorate the 567th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul.
Turkish newspapers reported that the prayers inside the building could be celebrated on July 15, the fourth anniversary of an attempted coup d’etat against the president, and that Erdoğan has instructed officials to propose a formula that still allows the tourists when it is a mosque.
Judges hearing the Hagia Sophia case can still maintain their neutral status, offering Erdogan a way out if he worries that the conversion will further affect relations with the West, on which he depends for trade and financing, particularly during the depression. economic caused by the coronavirus.
But there are other omens that could count the days of Hagia Sophia as a museum. The Erdogan government has converted a number of historical churches that share the name of Hagia Sophia into mosques in Turkey in recent years, placing mosaics behind screens due to Islam’s aversion to images of living things.
And in possible omen of Hagia Sophia’s fate, a sister court ruled last year that the secular status of another church-turned-museum-turned-mosque should be revoked. The court said the Kariye Museum in Istanbul, an ancient Byzantine church famous for its precious mosaics, “cannot be used except for its essential function”, such as a mosque.