Two historic events related to sacred spaces occurred in recent months. In July, Turkey reconverted the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul into a mosque. Then, on August 5, India held the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of Ram Mandir, a Hindu temple, on the ruins of the Babri Masjid in the city of Ayodhya.
Showing respect for the sentiments and sacred spaces of communities other than your own, and especially those of minority communities, has long been considered a mark of an inclusive and peaceful society. However, these two events highlighted the reality that many “progressive” voices in the world use this moral principle very selectively. (This is the first in a series of articles on this topic.)
The Hagia Sophia (“Church of Holy Wisdom”) was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 530s, on the site of several previous churches probably dating back to the mid-300s. It was a marvel of engineering and design at the time, and continued to awe visitors to Constantinople for many centuries (one of whom, in the 14th century, was the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta). In 1204, Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders, who were vehemently opposed to the Eastern Orthodox Church, followed by the majority in the city. The Crusaders converted the Hagia Sophia into a Roman Catholic cathedral, and it remained so until 1264, when the Byzantines reconquered the city and converted Hagia Sophia back into an Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1453, the city was conquered by the Ottomans, and converted into a mosque. Some of the Christian artifacts and mosaics were removed or destroyed, while others were plastered over and, in effect, preserved. Some Islamic architectural features, such as minarets and a minbar (pulpit) were added. For the next 478 years, the Hagia Sophia served as a mosque.
The Ottoman Empire was formally abolished by Mustafa Kemal in 1924, who had gained fame for his leadership in the Turkish War for Independence (1919-23) and, soon after, come to power. Kemal and his supporters were deeply influenced by the West and staunchly secularist. After coming to power, they launched an ambitious project to modernize Turkey. To do this, the Kemalists deemed it necessary to outlaw many public expressions of religion; for example, the headscarf worn by Muslim women was banned in public institutions, and the adhan (call to prayer) was ordered to be given in Turkish rather than Arabic. It has been reported that on the night of Laylat al-Qadr in 1932, inside the Hagia Sophia itself, the call to prayer and the recitation of the Qur’an were both done in Turkish (i.e. a Turkish translation was read) as part of the Kemalists’ forced reforms.
Meanwhile, the resourceful and ambitious American archeologist Thomas Whittemore was doing his part to secularize the Hagia Sophia, which had served as a mosque for nearly half a millennium. Whittemore was the founder of the Byzantine Institute of America, and after gathering support and donations for his plans in the United States, he traveled to Turkey in the early 1930s and found a way to personally introduce the idea to Mustafa Kemal that the surviving Christian mosaics inside Hagia Sophia should be uncovered and restored for all to see. In Whittemore’s own words, when he went to the Hagia Sophia the day following this conversation, he found it closed with a sign on the door in Kemal’s own handwriting: “The museum is closed for repairs.” That was in 1931.
The status of the mosque (or “museum”, as Mustafa Kemal already saw it) was in limbo for several years, while Whittemore encouraged the line of thought that the Hagia Sophia should become a museum. In 1934, Kemal’s government created a commission to “advise” on this issue. The commission dutifully reported that the mosque should become a museum showcasing Byzantine and Ottoman art, that the building should be repaired, and that the adjacent coffeehouses and orphanage should be closed down. On November 24, 1934, on the same day that Kemal was given the title Atatürk (father of Turks), the Turkish Council of Ministers declared that, “due to its historical significance, the conversion of the Ayasofya mosque, a unique architectural monument of art located in Istanbul, into a museum will please the entire Eastern world; and its conversion to a museum will cause humanity to gain a new institution of knowledge.”
On February 5, 1935, the Hagia Sophia re-opened as a museum, and Kemal visited later that month. Whittemore continued his work to restore the mosaics inside, recording the process; the resulting footage was apparently so important to the West that US President Theodore Roosevelt himself viewed it in the White House.
The Hagia Sophia remained a museum until July of 2020, although some voices had called for its restoration many years earlier. During his 1994 election campaign, in which current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected Mayor of Istanbul, he said in one speech: “You and us, standing in front of sad Hagia Sophia, just opposite of Sultanahmet [Mosque], will accomplish the second conquest of Istanbul.”
Erdoğan, who has faced criticism for many of his positions especially on foreign policy, has been committed to restoring the public expressions of religion that the Kemalists had forcefully taken away, showing complete disregard for the sentiments of many Turkish people who had a very strong attachment to religious traditions. One of Erdogan’s achievements in this sphere was revoking the ban on headscarf in public institutions, despite strong opposition from secularists.
While Turkey was actively pursuing membership in the European Union, the Turkish government felt the need to tread carefully around the issue of Hagia Sophia. Erdoğan tried to send a message that this was not about the resurgence of Islam per se, but about the sentiments of the Turkish people, including non-Muslims. In 2011, at an iftar dinner in Istanbul during the month of Ramadan, Erdoğan hosted representatives of Turkey’s Christian and Jewish communities and announced that his government would be returning hundreds of properties that had been confiscated from religious minorities by the Turkish state (in the Kemalist era) since 1936, when they had been asked to declare their assets.
While this effort was welcomed by many outside observers, the thought of reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was not. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a statement in May 2014 calling a bill introduced in Turkey’s parliament to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque “misguided”; a senior Erdoğan aide clarified shortly after that there were no plans to change the status of Hagia Sophia, even though there was popular support for this (In July 2020, the USCIRF also became the widely quoted “experts” on the implications of Hagia Sophia becoming a mosque again).
The Turkish government’s decision to restore Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque provoked very strong reactions internationally. However, the question is, how many of these were genuinely out of concern for religious freedoms and inclusivity. Many voices exposed their own hypocrisy in the process, calling on Turkey to uphold values which they themselves barely maintain (This will be discussed in more detail in the next article in this series). It quickly became clear that their concern was not so much about the status of a building; it was more about an influential Muslim-majority country freely and confidently expressing its sovereignty.