There is no doubt that Turkey’s decision to annul the 1934 Council of Ministers edict to convert the Hagia Sophia Mosque into a museum has pleased Muslims around the world. The mosque, it has been confirmed, was the personal property of Sultan Mehmet II, and he decreed that it was to be a religious endowment for which any change is forbidden, including a change of use. Declaring it to be a museum in 1934 was, in other words, illegal.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adopted the court’s decision and issued an order to open Hagia Sophia for worship and turn its administration over to the Ministry of Religious Affairs. When the call to prayer was duly performed at the mosque, thousands prayed there in celebration. Tickets were neither bought nor necessary; only ritual ablution.
Prior to 1934, the call to prayer had been performed in Hagia Sophia for nearly 500 years, ever since the Ottoman Sultan conquered Constantinople in 1453 and offered to buy the building and land from the Christian authorities. His offer was accepted after he had kept the cathedral open in consideration of the feelings of the congregation and priests. The deed confirming this is still in the archives in Ankara. Only after the purchase was completed did the Sultan add four minarets in the Ottoman style and Arabic calligraphy of the names of Allah and His Prophet, Muhammad, peace be upon him.
With the defeat of the axis powers in World War One, in which the Ottoman Empire stood alongside Germany, Istanbul was occupied and prayers were banned in Hagia Sophia. It was the founder of the secular Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, who then turned the mosque into a museum in 1934.
In fact, Hagia Sophia is not just a mosque that was converted into a museum, but it is a symbol of the period of Islamic conquests and a nation whose swords were guided by faith and ethics. It was an example for a nation that began with the conquest of Constantinople at the hands of Mehmet Al-Fatih, the Conqueror, and ended at the hands of the colonial powers which forced Ataturk to turn the mosque into a museum. Restoring the building to its legal status as a mosque means that the Western victory phase has now been ended. The restoration was long a dream of the Turks as a means to get rid of colonialism.
Necmettin Erbakan rekindled these feelings during his election campaign in 1996, but as Prime Minister of Turkey (1996-1997) he found that the matter was not an easy one because he would turn the West against his country. Moreover, the powerful secular military accused him of “violating” the separation of religion and state and forced him out.
However, with Erdogan at the prime ministerial and now presidential helm Turkey has become a major international and regional force. He has been able to achieve his dream. His statements in an interview with a Kuwaiti newspaper in 1994 when he was Mayor of Istanbul have been circulating on social media. He said then that he would return the Islamic face to Istanbul and restore the Hagia Sophia to its status as a mosque. Erdogan has kept his promise. Even his political opponents and former colleagues have supported the Hagia Sophia move. Former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who is in a political conflict with Erdogan, has said that the awaited dream has become a reality and congratulated the country on restoring the Hagia Sophia’s status as a mosque and symbol of conquest.
Former Turkish President Abdullah Gul, who also has disagreements with Erdogan, tweeted a congratulatory message on reopening the Hagia Sophia for worship and said that this historical decision pleased the Turkish people. He thanked and congratulated everyone involved in the decision.
Muharram Ince, the former leader of the People’s Party who stood against Erdogan in the presidential elections, pointed out on Twitter that the Hagia Sophia issue is a matter of Turkish sovereignty, and neither Russia, the US, Europe, Greece nor any other country or institution can interfere.
The West was, predictably, upset at the move, even before the court issued its ruling. Greece said that restoring the Hagia Sophia to a mosque provokes Western Christians. The US called on Turkey not to change its status, while the Orthodox Church in Russia said that this was a return to the Middle Ages and will leave the Russian people in deep pain. They concluded by saying that a threat to the Hagia Sophia is a threat to Christian civilisation, spirituality and history. France, meanwhile, condemned the decision and demanded that the Hagia Sophia remain a museum open to all. In fact, Hagia Sophia Mosque will not be closed to non-Muslims; it will remain open to all as a major Turkish landmark and tourist attraction like other mosques in Istanbul, as President Erdogan has promised.
UNESCO, which turns a blind eye to Israel’s actions against Al-Aqsa Mosque and its Judaisation of ancient Palestinian sanctities, also objects to the change of status. This is no surprise, given that it is a creation of the Western colonial powers.
We clearly live in a one-eyed world that does not object to the Great Mosque in Cordoba being turned into a church, while the third largest cathedral in the world used to be the Great Mosque in Seville; the Divine Salvador Church in Spain was also originally a mosque, as were many other smaller mosques all over the country. All of these mosques were turned into churches by force and not through purchase, which was the case with the Hagia Sophia after the conquest of Constantinople. Indeed, many mosques have been turned into churches, bars, discotheques and even barns for animals in Spain, Portugal, most of Eastern Europe and Russia. And, of course, in what is now Israel.
In the West, it is common for churches to be sold because they no longer have enough parishioners and many are now mosques. Converting a church into a mosque is common in the West, both in the eyes of the owners of the places of worship and their governments. However, the West and Russia are complaining about Turkey and Hagia Sophia because its significance and meaning actually goes beyond religion. It is a question of independence and sovereignty, which has been a struggle for Muslim Turkey even before the issue was taken up by Erdogan.
The Hagia Sophia has a deep-rooted symbolism at the heart of Turkish identity. The decision to restore the status of the mosque is a historic step which reconnects the modern state of Turkey to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.