A court ruling in Turkey has apparently opened the way to reconvert Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum into an active mosque.
I think that’s a tragically bad decision, and here’s why.
The Ottoman Empire, from which Mustafa Kemal Ataturk forged the modern Turkish state as of the 1920s, had been for many centuries a model of religious conviviality between Muslims, Christians and Jews. When the waves of nationalism and ethnic hatred after the First World War killed that concept, and redesigned the entire Middle East, it was Ataturk’s wise decision to separate religion and politics.
No doubt the bitter experiences of large-scale ethnic cleansing perpetrated by all sides, with Greek ultra-nationalists playing a prominent part in trying to grab Turkish territories, inspired the idea. If the past of mutual respect between religions was to be forgotten, then at least make the most prestigious monument of Istanbul’s multicultural past accessible to all without distinction of creed.
So Hagia Sophia became a museum. It’s said that even the conqueror of Constantinople, Mehmet II, was so impressed with the space of the christian church, that he dismounted his horse and entered it on foot as a sign of respect. The Sultan and his successors interfered relatively little with the building to turn it into a mosque. They added the four minarets, but in the interior they didn’t destroy the Byzantine mosaics, only plastered and painted them over ( they were later recovered).
The case is of close interest to me, because living in Andalucia, I alway look upon the case of the grand mosque in Cordoba as an identical situation in reverse: that mosque was turned into a church after the Reconquista in the 15th century (remarkably close in time to the events in Istanbul). The christians mistreated the mosque much worse than the sultan had done with Hagia Sophia: they planted an arrogantly exuberant church in the middle of the perfect, sparse geometry of the arab architecture. To his credit, the emperor Charles V disapproved.
But in contrast with the wise decision of Ataturk, the Spanish catholic church, of course always protected by Franco and the political Right, continues to this day to use the building as a cathedral, and has repeatedly rejected the idea of it becoming a secular museum.
The Spanish church is thus staunchly hanging on to a symbol of the very intolerance president Erdogan is now returning to in Turkey if the reconversion of Hagia Sophia does indeed take place.
This is, simply, a backward decision.
Mr Erdogan relies politically on the half of his country that wants to undo the secular state created by Ataturk, one of the greatest politicians of the first half of the 20th Century. The president may himself be a devout muslim or not. Frankly, I don’t give a damn. With this decision, what he comes across as to me, is a shameless opportunist. Like Mr Trump, he’ s willing to deepen the divisions in his own country for his own political survival.