Five hundred years ago, when the sighting of a bleeding moon reflected across the Bosphorus made the Byzantines go weak in the knees, the once unconquerable Constantinople fell into the hands of the invading Ottomans. And thus, changed the fate of the Hagia Sophia; a monument whose name thereon, would forever remain on the lips of religious and political leaders seeking its identity.
Having mesmerized people for centuries, the legend of Hagia Sophia has been one of beauty, desire, endurance and tenacity, spanning across fifteen centuries and four empires. It has left behind a legacy of fortitude against a history of earthquakes, riots, historical conquests and selfish political opportunism.
But the question that’s on everyone’s mind concerns not the architecture or opulence of the structure, but the nature of its true identity: a church, a mosque or a museum? The answer lies within the origins of the Hagia Sophia, and to find it one must listen closely to the tale that its walls have to tell.
The legacy of Hagia Sophia goes way back to the year 360, when emperor Constantius II laid the foundation stones of its very first structure. Over the next few centuries, Hagia Sophia would witness natural calamities and riots that would cause it to fall several times and subsequently rise back a phoenix from its ashes.
The present-day architecture was actually built under Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 537, by bringing together two architectural geniuses hailing from western Asia Minor (most of present-day Turkey), who crafted the Hagia Sophia into the remarkable epitome of magnificence that we see today.
Dating back to the 10th century, the mosaic depicts Justinian I, Christ, Mary and Constantine.
Hagia Sophia, under the Greek Orthodox Byzantines, became the central church of faith and the largest cathedral in the world. But around 1204, for a brief moment, Constantinople and by extension Hagia Sophia, was conquered as a result of a brutal Roman crusade. The structure suffered its lifetime’s greatest ruin at the hands of the Roman crusaders who ransacked the place and imposed their beliefs therewith, creating a major divide between the Latin and Greek Churches. The Byzantines, however, were quickly able to reconquer the city from the Romans.
But the Roman Crusade had already deeply weakened the Byzantines, leading to political degeneration, thereby making them an easy prey for the oncoming Turkish invasion. Thus in 1453, came the final downfall of the Byzantines when a momentous conquest led by Ottoman Emperor Fatih Sultan Mehmed, led to the historic capture of Constantinople, making the Ottoman empire more powerful than ever.
Following the defeat, rioting and looting of the city ensued. But Mehmed let no harm come upon the Hagia Sophia. Like his predecessors, he was mesmerized by the beauty of Hagia Sophia and renovated it into a mosque. The reason behind this conversion remains unclear since most churches were allowed to function in his reign.
The Ottoman Conquest of Constantinople, 1453.
Even though Hagia Sophia was adopted as a mosque, its interiors largely remained undisturbed save for a few changes made to strengthen the structure which had again started showing signs of dilapidation.
But this wouldn’t last for long as Hagia Sophia was bracing for another monumental change; a change that would set into motion the controversy and arguments that would surround it for eighty long years.
Five centuries later, after the end of the Great War in 1918, having being defeated by the Allied Powers, the Ottoman Empire was on the verge of a collapse. As a result, in 1920, the Ottomans were forced to sign a peace treaty called the Treaty of Sevres with the Allied Powers, which dismantled and distributed most of the Ottoman territory among the European powers under intense subjugation. However, in lieu of its failure and severe backlash, another treaty called the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923, marking the legal demise of the Ottoman state. Under the treaty, Turkey had to give up all its claims on the Ottoman Empire in return for the recognition of Turkish sovereignty within its new borders, led under the pseudo-liberal propensities of a Turkish resistance member, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Greek prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos signing the Treaty of Sevres.
The treaty was not received well by a significant number of people holding a strong sense of belonging to the former Ottoman state; a sentiment that reverberated into future generations thereby splitting the Turkish society.
Division of the Ottoman Empire after the Treaty of Sevres
Kemal Ataturk, in pursuit of convincing the West of Turkey’s liberal image, drove the cabinet into passing an ordinance to convert the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935. Thus, commenced the era of a forced top down Westernization of the state.
The decision of this conversion was first discussed over dinner held at the Tokatliyan Hotel way back in June 1929, by Ataturk and eight other rich and famous Americans. The real mastermind, however, was Thomas Whittemore, a socialite possessing an unhealthy passion for Byzantine art. So unhealthy, that he was told to be found holding an album of Hagia Sophia mosaics when he passed away. Whittemore manipulated Ataturk and other Turkish leaders and obtained the green light from Ankara to clandestinely move forward with the project of recovering Byzantine mosaics in the Hagia Sophia.
Under his ‘recovery’ process, Hagia Sophia’s precious prayer carpets were torn off, the enormous candles that lit the hall chopped down and melted, the Ottoman school annex demolished and the Beyazit II minaret along with the other minarets were destroyed.
The decision was so secretive that the Turkish newspapers learned about it a full two months later from a New York Times report. After years of surreptitious work, an ordinance ordered the conversion. This news landed as a shock among the masses, so much so that even the pro-Ataturk newspapers published an article unable to comprehend the justification of the decision. The public and media were therefore impuissant and couldn’t raise their voices. And the state, without questioning anything, used all its resources to make it happen.
Thus, the radical project of Kemalism had started, with the elimination of Turkey’s cultural heritage at the forefront. He ordered the replacement of the Ottoman Arabic script with the Latin alphabet, banned the call to prayer in original Arabic and closed down hundreds of mosques, schools and shrines across the country.
The entire society underwent a massive transformation in the form of an aversion towards its religious past. When thirty years later, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes tried to raise his voice against these changes made in the society in the name of liberalization, he was brought down by a military coup, jailed and later executed. The message was clear that there would be no tolerance of religious expression in anyway shape or form, not even meagre rituals and practices.
But this did not last for long as pseudo-liberalism’s sacred guardians had now come face to face with a rising Islamic movement that was slowly emerging from the depths of the country’s mosques, shrines and universities. This movement became stronger and more vocal throughout the 1970s and 80s, intent on restoring the country’s cultural heritage.
Years later, on July 10, 2020, Turkey made a momentous decision by overturning the status of Hagia Sophia, allotted by the republic’s founding fathers, and opened it for Islamic prayers after eighty years.
This decision has been met with much criticism and ire by the world, deeming it as a move influenced by religious extremism. But the returning of Hagia Sophia’s status to a mosque has little to do with Islam vs Christianity. It is rather a part of a journey towards rejecting forced top down Westernization and military secularization that has been unfolding within the country for decades.
Muslims all around the world have also been quick to comment that those who are outraged by this decision have surprisingly been undeterred by the felling and seizure of mosques and Islamic monuments over centuries throughout Europe, Palestine, Russia and recently India. And that, this is just another aspect of hypocrisy perpetuated by Western double standards.
Although the reinstatement of Hagia Sophia is a domestic affair, it has managed to resonate far and wide among Muslims across the world as a powerful decision, while simultaneously having heavy implications on the status of the current leaders of the Arab world.
With Saudi Arabia slowly transitioning from its state imposed Wahabbism to a belligerent model of Westernization; (a sharp disparity from the country’s status as the custodian of the two Holy mosques), and Egypt losing faith in its incumbent, both the countries (along with UAE) who once enjoyed their positions as the prominent decision makers and leaders of the Islamic world, are now slowly losing their appeal and are in fact being viewed as antagonists to the image and future of Islam in the world.
Turkey, by this decision, has managed to place itself as a voice of Sunni Islam in the eyes of hopeless Muslims, presenting itself as a new influential Arab figurehead in contrast to the weak Arab kings and leaders who in pursuits of their perverse political motives, have managed to turn their backs on the plight of Muslims across the world – be it Palestine, Yemen, Syria and Islam on the whole, and all that it holds sacred.
Hagia Sophia has come a long way on its journey of fortitude. So, by silently claiming its Ottoman heritage, has Turkey established the beginnings of a new leadership?
Is this decision a symbolism of the rising of another Blood Moon across Turkey’s horizon or is it just another political move?
Source: Middle East Eye