The most recognizable building in Istanbul is about to get an Islamic makeover courtesy of the Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Hagia Sophia, once a mighty cathedral in the Eastern Orthodox Church, then a mosque under the Ottomans and finally a museum, may be turned back into a mosque by Erdogan.
Erdogan claims that Turkey can do whatever it wants with the world-historical site and any criticism of turning it back into a mosque is an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty. Christians are outraged because the museum was seen as a good compromise between Muslims and Christians and reminded them of their history in the city of Istanbul which was once known as Constantinople.
For once, the Russians appear to be on the right side of history.
The Kremlin said on Monday it hoped Turkish authorities would take into account Hagia Sophia’s status as a World Heritage Site.
“This is a beloved world masterpiece for tourists from all countries who visit Turkey, including for tourists from Russia, for whom Hagia Sophia, in additional to its tourism value, has an very deep sacred spiritual value,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
Indeed, the ecumenical patriarch of the Orthodox Church says that turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a threat to Christianity.
The proposal has been criticised by several religious and political leaders, including the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, spirtual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, as well as Greece, France and the United States.
“A threat against Hagia Sophia is a threat to all of Christian civilization, meaning (a threat to) our spirituality and history,” Patriarch Kirill said in a statement.
“What could happen to Hagia Sophia will cause deep pain among the Russian people.”
Erdogan isn’t being very subtle in his bid to subjugate the remaining Christians in Turkey and the Middle East.
In 1453, following the defeat of historic Byzantium, the Ottomans converted the cathedral into a mosque as a symbol of their dominion over Turkey’s indigenous Christians. In the process, they desecrated and plastered over the early Christian icons, mosaics and frescos — though some pieces remain.
In 1934, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secularist founder of modern Turkey, converted the Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum, as “a monument for all civilization.” This allowed people of all faiths to marvel at the Christian icons and the sheer beauty of the site without a religious litmus test to enter.
Erdogan, however, is unapologetically nostalgic for the days of the Ottoman Empire. His plan to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is of a piece with his Islamist vision for the country, a vision that sits uncomfortably with the Hagia Sophia, a gigantic monument to what used to be called Christendom — right at the heart of Turkey’s most important city.
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Hagia Sophia enjoys certain protections from civilized nations. Unfortunately, Erdogan will only respond to pressure if it comes from other Islamist countries. And since that’s not likely to happen, the beautiful former cathedral is likely to become a shrine to Erdogan’s Islamist vanity.