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The status of Hagia Sophia is the litmus of this civilization!

Today, Friday, July 10, 2020. The decision of the Turkish Council of State to transform Hagia Sophia into 1935 into a museum has been canceled. Subsequently, a decree was signed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the transfer of The Great Hagia Sophia Mosque, to the Presidency of Religious Affairs. Thus, the decision to turn it into a mosque was announced.

This is not an easy matter! Besides being political, I know that there are certain sensitivities regarding religious, cultural and historical theses. In the last days, before this decision was made, I have already shared some of my thoughts about Hagia Sophia on Twitter, and I have already received enough reactions. Therefore, I know the sensitivity of the subject very closely. Because to discuss the status of Hagia Sophia, in Turkey, it means to enter the field of defense mechanisms, prejudice, prejudgments in terms of Turks and Muslims. Therefore, Hagia Sophia, is a very sensitive subject regarding the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish identity, their relationship with the regions Turks were located, and various matters such as Muslims’ relations with Christians, Islam and Muslim’s actual ‘other.’

First of all, let me start by just sharing the historical facts. The completion of the Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) building took place between 532 and 537 after Christ. The name of the building in Greek means “holy wise or wisdom” and refers to Divine wisdom. The building was built by the Roman Emperor Justinian as a church. Hagia Sophia Church, which is the first cathedral of the Christian world, has preserved this title for many centuries with its extraordinarily large dome and interior. Even though larger cathedrals were built with new techniques, this large cathedral has always been a very special place for Christians. Even the Orthodox and Catholic sects continuing as two separate churches with the division of Rome did not change this fact. Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque in 1453 after the city of Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Empire. The frescoes, mosaics and paintings (depictions of Jesus, Mary, many Christian holy figures, angels, etc.) inside were covered with plaster. Until 1931, Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque. Although there is no addition to the building, minarets were built to give the building a mosque view. Its first minaret was wooden. Later on, it was destroyed (at the end of the 1450s) by Sultan Mehmet the II. In the period of Mehmet, a brick minaret was built. Three other minarets were built during the period of Sultan Beyazıt. After the conquest of the building, Hagia Sophia suffered great damage while the city was looted. Bells, icons, mosaics, depictions of Jesus and Mary have been heavily destroyed. Along with Hagia Sophia, large and medium-sized cathedrals and churches in Constantinople were converted into mosques. These are, Old Imaret Mosque (Patepoples Monastery), Zeyrek Mosque (Pantokrator Monastery), Vefa Mosque (Theodoros Church), Arab Mosque (San Paolo Church), Fethiye Mosque (Pammakaristos Church), Koca Mustafa Paşa Sümbül Efendi Mosque (Andreas Monastery) , Little Aya Sofia Mosque (Theodora Church), Kariye Mosque (Chora Church), Imrahor Mosque (Baptist Iohannes Church), Fenari Isa Mosque (Virgin Theodokos Church), Bodrum Mosque in Laleli (Myrelaion Monastery), Kalenderhane Mosque (Kyriotissa Church).

Hagia Sophia was a religious place with a symbolic importance until the architectural style of the Ottoman period determined the Constantinople silhouette. Later, large mosques were built, and Ottoman Mosque architecture entered a synthesis with Byzantium, and the most elegant mosques of Islamic architecture were built in Constantinople. Hagia Sophia, which was closed to the worship of Muslims in 1931, remained closed for four years. During this period, the authorities worked to make the building a museum. The building, which turned into a Museum 1935, was opened to visitors. With 3.3 million annual visits to the Hagia Sophia annual average was Turkey’s most visited museum.

Now, after referring to these very brief – and inadequate – historical facts, let’s come to a critical look at the political, cultural, religious, geographical and historical, identity issues related to Hagia Sophia.

Since I wrote this article in connection with my previous Turkish History Theses: Mixed Salad (1, 2, 3) articles, I think that my thoughts about establishing a healthy sense of belonging with the geography of Turks in geographical-historical context will be better understood.

Conquest is one of the most important grounds of Turkish presence in their geography. Of course, I know that it is necessary to approach ‘Fatah’ (Conquest) in its historical context. My goal is never anachronism and to adapt and apply the thoughts and values that apply today to the past.

It is a fact that we need to use a huge “but” here. Because by evaluating and understanding historical events and their results in the historical context, attempting to apply the behavioral patterns (or schemes) in history today, or using the universe of values in history to make sense of today, are separate things! When Islamization in Anatolia is evaluated in its periodical context, it is a “happened-finished” thing, but it is very necessary to build a more comprehensive historical discourse and narrative.

As an example, the approach of the Catholic Church to the Christianization of Latin America or Africa today does not coincide with the dominant conservative Catholic history theses in the 1700s or 1800s. United Kingdom, today, uses a very different language than the discourse which legitimized expansionism of British empire when it established the dynamic relationship with its colonies in the 18th or 19th centuries. Or, for example, French children read French expansionism in Algeria today with a very critical historical discourse, a pedagogical discourse that aims to take lessons from history. That’s what it should be! Isn’t the point I want to arrive so clear? Isn’t it time for us to reconsider the conquest (both the conquest of Anatolia and the experience of Turcification and Islamization, as well as the conquest of Constantinople and the transformation of the city’s Christian fabric with a Muslim texture) with a more “less offensive” discourse?

Couldn’t Hagia Sophia be a symbol in this sense? Because it has already been a museum since the 1930s. Couldn’t a language embracing non-Muslims and Christian-Jewish roots in this new narrative or a story be used to start a discourse that embraces Anatolia, not conquering it, but is proud to be its child? Wouldn’t it be better to teach the young generations a nation formed like a “soup” boiling in the Anatolian “cauldron” in terms of building a more peaceful society along with a more realistic history? Wouldn’t it be better to tell about the mutual love of Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet, emphasizing that monotheist Abrahamic religions are actually siblings and say “Look what we learned from history?” Do you think it is prouder to be citizens of a country that gives this message to the world, or to be a citizen of a country that has closed the Hagia Sophia Cathedral again and opened it as a Mosque today? What do you think? Which one is prouder? For once, is “turning our other cheek” such a bad thing? Why is “loving your enemy” so difficult? Why is it so difficult to honor the value of “there is no compulsion in religion” and “your religion is for you, my religion is for me”? To whom does it benefit to reintroduce the wounds of hostilities instead of replicating partnerships?

I don’t care how much reaction I will get. The truth is this: Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) Cathedral is a blessing of Christianity. It wouldn’t be fair to pretend as if nothing happened during the last 89 years between 1931 and 2020 while Hagia Sopia was a museum.

The mosqueisation of Hagia Sophia and dozens of large cathedrals and churches can be seen as a kind of functional necessity in Constantinople, where there are no mosques in the 1450s, even if it is not right and very Islamic. But in modern Istanbul, where there are tens of thousands of mosques, it is not possible to mention that it is not a functional requirement for Hagia Sophia turning in to a Mosque! So why was this move made? I think everyone knows the answer to this question. In addition, many valuable authors in the articles of each other wrote this topic in the longest.

The main issue I am interested in is: what kind of civilization do we want to be? Because rulers or political regimes come and go. What is permanent is civilizations. Permanent messages are those given on behalf of those civilizations. The ships that carried us beyond ages are these messages. The Hagia Sophia decision is such a message. One day everyone will remember this message. Do we want to be a civilization that forces people from their religion and temple? Many civilizations, cultures, people or states may have done this. But remember that we are talking about today! Moreover, let’s assume that all the societies of the world make others from their religion or temple. Does this justify us to make this mistake, too? Does it justify this? You might say, but we don’t do that! What we’re doing is just Mosqueisation a place that was already a mosque in the past. No, it’s not that simple. Because the relationship we have with our history affects our today. Today, Catholics use a very careful discourse against South American or African natives and do not forget the lesson they have learned from that date in their behavior. Today, the assimilation of Canadian natives in boarding schools in Canada is told to younger generations as a black mark; not as something to be praised. If the Islamic world adopts the spirit of the tenth or fifteenth century in approaching members of other cultures and religions today, there is a very serious problem. If you set out by compassing the universe of values hundreds of years ago in the twenty-first century, your destination will be the great destructions, occupations, wars or misery of those times.

If a building has to be a mosque and you truly respect your religion, why don’t you start by making the most beautiful mosques? I have seen the ugliest mosques in Istanbul, as well as the most beautiful mosques in my life. Hagia Sophia Cathedral will always exist in the architecture of the Ottoman Mosque. Because its spirit has become an integral part of your native architectural style! Leave it alone now. Glorify it – if you truly respect God who is the Lord of the realms! – and stop using force as a method of your faith! Do not deal with physical – material – things you can hold, and set sail to a world of meanings, thinking and wisdom. You cannot spread your religion with great armies, brutal force. It’s just fear, not religion! True religion spreads through cognition, heart, emotion and faith. The message given by Hagia Sophia is the first method. Many religions made these mistakes as well as many nations! It is not a time for these errors to recur. Only mutual tolerance and understanding can unite humanity.

The status of Hagia Sophia is the litmus of this civilization.

The Turkish version of this article first appeared at TR724.com.

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Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.


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