It’s official: Turkey plans on converting the Hagia Sophia museum—for centuries, one of Christendom’s grandest basilicas—into a mosque.
Although President Erdoğan often tells Western/secular media that his decision is a sort of tit for tat—now a response to Israel’s treatment of Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque, now a response to European resistance to more Muslim migrants—the true significance behind his desire to transform Hagia Sophia came out in March 31, 2019.
After reporting that “Turkey’s president has recited an Islamic prayer in the Hagia Sophia, a historic Istanbul landmark that has become a symbol of interfaith and diplomatic tensions,” AP added that Erdoğan also dedicated his prayer to the “souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul’s conqueror.”
He is not alone in his desire to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque as a way of venerating its jihadi conquerors; more than 97 percent of Turks surveyed said they want to see Hagia Sophia turned into a mosque, not because there is a dearth of places to pray—as of 2010, there were 3,000 active mosques in Istanbul alone—but to revel in the glory (that is, gory) days of jihad, and honor its practitioners.
To quote Salih Turhan, head of the Anatolian Youth Association, a group that annually organizes mass demonstrations around Hagia Sophia: “As the grandchildren of Mehmet the Conqueror, seeking the re-opening Hagia Sophia as a mosque is our legitimate right.”
In what follows, we revisit exactly what Mehmet (the Turkish pronunciation of “Muhammad”) did to prompt so many modern Turks, including their president, to honor him, including by transforming Hagia Sophia into a mosque. (All quotes in the following narrative are from primary sources, mostly eyewitnesses, and are documented in my recent book, Sword and Scimitar: Fourteen Centuries of War between Islam and the West).
Hagia Sophia—Greek for “Holy Wisdom”—was built around 537 AD in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, which for nearly a millennium was a stalwart symbol of defiance against an ever encroaching Islam from the east.
After parrying centuries of jihadi thrusts, Mehmet sacked Constantinople on May 29, 1453, and turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque (until a then secularizing Turkey turned it into a museum in 1935).
Once inside the city, “The enraged Turkish soldiers . . . gave no quarter,” wrote an eyewitness:
When they had massacred and there was no longer any resistance, they were intent on pillage and roamed through the town stealing, disrobing, pillaging, killing, raping, taking captive men, women, children, old men, young men, monks, priests, people of all sorts and conditions… There were virgins who awoke from troubled sleep to find those brigands standing over them with bloody hands and faces full of abject fury… [The Turkish jihadis] dragged them, tore them, forced them, dishonored them, raped them at the cross-roads and made them submit to the most terrible outrages… Tender children were brutally snatched from their mothers’ breasts and girls were pitilessly given up to strange and horrible unions, and a thousand other terrible things happened. . .
Because thousands of citizens had fled to and were holed up in Hagia Sophia, it offered an excellent harvest of slaves once its doors were axed down.
“One Turk would look for the captive who seemed the wealthiest, a second would prefer a pretty face among the nuns. . . . Each rapacious Turk was eager to lead his captive to a safe place, and then return to secure a second and a third prize. . . . Then long chains of captives could be seen leaving the church and its shrines, being herded along like cattle or flocks of sheep.”
The slavers sometimes fought each other to the death over “any well-formed girl,” even as many of the latter “preferred to cast themselves into the wells and drown rather than fall into the hands of the Turks.”
Having taken possession of one of Christendom’s greatest and oldest basilicas—nearly a thousand years old at the time of its capture—the invaders “engaged in every kind of vileness within it, making of it a public brothel.” On “its holy altars” they enacted “perversions with our women, virgins, and children,” including “the Grand Duke’s daughter who was quite beautiful.” She was forced to “lie on the great altar of Hagia Sophia with a crucifix under her head and then raped.”
Next “they paraded the [Hagia Sophia’s main] Crucifix in mocking procession through their camp, beating drums before it, crucifying the Christ again with spitting and blasphemies and curses. They placed a Turkish cap . . . upon His head, and jeeringly cried, ‘Behold the god of the Christians!’” They “gouged the eyes from the [embalmed] saints” and dumped their corpses “in the middle of the streets for swine and dogs to trample on . . . and the images of our Lord Jesus Christ and His Saints were burned or hacked to pieces.”
Many other churches in the ancient city suffered the same fate. “The crosses which had been placed on the roofs or the walls of churches were torn down and trampled.” The Eucharist was hurled to the ground; holy icons were stripped of gold, “thrown to the ground and kicked.” Bibles were stripped of their gold or silver illuminations before being burned. “Icons were without exception given to the flames.” Patriarchal vestments were placed on the haunches of dogs; priestly garments were placed on horses.
“Everywhere there was misfortune, everyone was touched by pain” when Sultan Mehmet finally made his grand entry into the city. “There were lamentations and weeping in every house, screaming in the crossroads, and sorrow in all churches; the groaning of grown men and the shrieking of women accompanied looting, enslavement, separation, and rape.”
The sultan rode to Hagia Sophia, dismounted, and went in, “marveling at the sight” of the grand basilica. Like other churches that came under Muslim control—such as John the Baptist’s basilica, now the Great Mosque of Damascus—Hagia Sophia’s lot was not destruction but transformation into a mosque. After having it cleansed of its crosses, statues, and icons—the sultan himself knocked over and trampled on its altar—Mehmet ordered a muezzin to ascend the pulpit and sound “their detestable prayers. Then this son of iniquity [the sultan], this forerunner of Antichrist, mounted upon the Holy Table to utter forth his own prayers,” thereby “turning the Great Church into a heathen shrine for his god and his Mahomet.”
This, then, is what Turkey’s Muslims and president are proud of: the violent conquest of ancient Christian territory, and the atrocity-laden transformation of its greatest cathedral into a mosque; this is what they are eager to honor by turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque again. For make no mistake: if the average Westerner is clueless concerning the history of Hagia Sophia, every Turk is taught it in youth.
Openly idolizing Mehmet and doing what he did in his honor—retransforming Hagia Sophia into a mosque—as Erdoğan has decreed to the joy of many Turks, is tantamount to their saying, “We are proud of our ancestors who slaughtered, beheaded, enslaved and raped people and stole their lands simply because they were Christian infidels.”
Note: For more details on the siege and subsequent rape of Constantinople, see Chapter 7 of Sword and Scimitar.