From early in the morning on July 24, it was almost impossible to move in the streets outside Istanbul’s iconic 1,500 year-old Hagia Sophia building.
Thousands of people had headed to the city’s Sultanahmet neighbourhood to witness the rededication of the structure – that had served variously as a church, a mosque and a secular museum – as an Islamic place of worship.
Despite the pandemic, vast crowds gathered to wait in the boiling sun until evening prayers. Inside the newly-rededicated mosque, the ceremony began with a prayer by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and was continued by imam Ali Erbaş, president of the country’s Directorate of Religious Affairs. Erbaş climbed the minbar – the platform used by preachers in mosques – carrying a sword.
For centuries the status of the Hagia Sophia has reflected Istanbul’s changing political fortunes. Built when the city was known as Constantinople, the capital of the Christian Byzantine empire, it was claimed by the Muslim Ottomans when they conquered the city in 1453. It was converted into a museum in the 1930s, a decade after the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.
In recent years, amid a worsening economic situation, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pursued more culturally conservative policies at home, and taken a more assertive stance internationally. The government often seeks to evoke the glories of the Ottoman Empire – as it did on the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople in May, when an animated film depicting the conquest was shown in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia.
From July 10, when the government opened discussions to cancel the 1934 decree that turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum, small groups of Muslim worshippers began gathering in the building’s courtyard after Friday prayers, along with some radical Islamist groups. One such group, calling itself Anatolian Raiders, gathered under a banner that declared “the future belongs to Islam” and shouted the slogan, “Chains are broken, Hagia Sophia is opened.”
As the crowd grew throughout the month, more banners and slogans appeared, with a mix of nationalist and religious sentiment.
“We will come to Rome, the dream of Fatih [Sultan Mehmet, who conquered Istanbul],” read one. On the night that the decision to rededicate Hagia Sophia was announced, people performed evening prayers in the courtyard and celebrated throughout the night, carrying not only Turkish and religious flags, but those of armed groups like Hamas and the Taleban.
On July 24, when the building was officially renamed the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, worshippers were delighted. There were visitors from Syria, Afghanistan and other majority Muslim countries, among them an elderly man with a long beard who made a speech in Arabic, before taking a Turkish flag out of his pocket and kissing it. A young Turkish medical student from Fatih, one of Istanbul’s more conservative districts, told Inside Turkey that he was overwhelmed by the sermon.
Asked if he thought that Christians would be upset by events, he said, “I don’t think there is a heart that cannot be conquered.”
Musa Hassan, who came to live in Istanbul from Aleppo, Syria, nine years ago, told Inside Turkey that he was looking forward to praying inside the Hagia Sophia.
“We suffered cruelty in our country. Our houses were bombed, the mosques were destroyed. Hagia Sophia being a mosque makes us proud,” he said.
Not everybody shares this joy. The author Mihail Vasiliadis, a member of Istanbul’s dwindling Greek Orthodox community, known as Rums, said that media coverage arguing in favour of rededicating the Hagia Sophia “reminds us of the events of September 1955,” when an anti-Christian pogrom drove out much of the city’s 90,000-strong Orthodox community.
Today, there are only around 600 families left, and nobody else contacted by Inside Turkey wanted to speak on the record.
“I’m over 80, I was born here and I want to be buried here,” said one elderly man as he played with his grandson in a tea garden in the Kadıköy neighbourhood, by way of explanation for his reluctance to be interviewed. “I don’t want to be kicked out.”
These fears are an uncomfortable reminder of how modern Turkey arose from the ashes of the Muslim-led, multi-confessional Otttoman empire. According to Garo Palyan, a lawmaker with the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP), around 40 per cent of the empire’s population was Christian in its final years. Palyan is ethnically Armenian; around 1.5 million Armenian Christians were killed or expelled between 1914 and 1923.
“We [Christians] are reduced in Anatolia, with pogroms, genocides, and populations exchanges,” he said. “Now we cannot fill a football stadium.”
The historian Ayşe Hür told Inside Turkey that the government was trying to revive the memory of the “right of conquest”, a symbol of pre-modern times, to redefine today’s Turkey.
“Nation-building is not only about changing people, but also the space in which they live,” she said. “It’s about changing the architectural works that remind people of their religious identities. An Islamic understanding of this subject is that if somewhere is conquered in war, it is permitted by Islamic tradition to convert the sanctuaries into mosques.”
Turkey’s branch of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), which advises the United Nations on world heritage sites, has asked the government to respect the ancient building’s varied history.
“The Hagia Sophia’s presentation, intact with all its layers, should not be obstructed, so this magnificent monument of world architectural history can keep inspiring us all as a symbol of interfaith brotherhood and world peace,” the organisation said in a recent statement.
“Empathy is a very important sentiment,” Paylan said, emphasising that the Hagia Sophia remained an important centre for Orthodox Christians. “Suppose Mecca was conquered by Christians, who converted the Kaaba into a church, saying that it was right of conquest. How would Muslims feel?”
Hagia Sophia, which once symbolised the secular values of modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, has also become a symbol of wider political change. On August 7, amid rising geopolitical tensions with Greece over access to the eastern Mediterranean, Erdoğan gave a speech about foreign policy using the Hagia Sophia as a backdrop. The prominent Islamist writer İhsan Şenocak made the same choice when he gave a speech critical of the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty on women’s rights that religious conservatives argue Turkey should withdraw from.
According to Palyan, Hagia Sophia would be better regarded as “a sanctuary that decreases the tension between religions”. Instead, he continued, it was now being transformed into a monocultural symbol.
“The dome of the Hagia Sophia should be big enough for all of us,” he said.