Recep Tayyip Erdogan headed Turkish government is all set to shun its secular foundations as it plans to convert a 6th-century Byzantine-era cathedral once again into a mosque.
In what is deemed by many as Erdogan’s push towards Islamisation of the country, the Turkish President has made moves to once against turn the 1500-year-old monument —Hagia Sophia, listed as a Unesco World Heritage site—into a mosque yet again. Hagia Sophia has been a Byzantine cathedral, a mosque under the Ottomans and finally a museum, making it an enduring symbol of the cultural rivalry between the Christians and the Muslims.
While the issue of reconverting Hagia Sophia museum into a mosque was nowhere on the list of priorities of Mr Erdogan when he entered the politics three decades ago, however, his gradual shift towards a more radicalised version of Islam, coupled with his defeat in the 2019 municipal elections in Istanbul, catapulted the historical structure right in the centre of Turkey’s politics, with the Turkish president pledging to convert the museum into a mosque again.
Erdogan, hailing from a conservative Muslim background, had presided over the gradual dismantling of Turkey’s secular traditions in recent times. Many believe that Erdogan’s latest gambit to convert the historical site of Hagia Sophia into a Muslim worshipping site is in line with his broader goal of progressive Islamisation of the Turkish society and designed specifically to gain political mileage by catering to his followers’ fundamentalist views which entails that once a mosque is sanctified, it should never be unconsecrated.
What is Hagia Sophia?
Built in the 6th-century and consecrated as the Byzantine cathedral, the iconic structure, known as “Hagia Sophia” was once Christianity’s largest cathedral and the historic seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, popularly known as Istanbul.
For about 900 years, Hagia Sophia was considered as an unrivalled pilgrimage centre for the Eastern Christians. The artefacts housed at the pilgrimage destination included alleged pieces of the original cross of Jesus Christ, along with the lance that impaled the Nazarene’s side. For centuries, Christian pilgrims found healing from these and other items.
Byzantine cathedral converted to a mosque following Ottoman conquest of Constantinopole
This is not the first time in history that the iconic cathedral of Byzantine-era will be converted into a place of worship for the Muslims. Earlier too, the cathedral was converted into a mosque.
In 1453, the historic Byzantium fell to Sultan Mehmet II’s Ottoman forces, who pillaged the cathedral and turned it into a mosque shortly afterwards as a symbol of dominance over the indigenous Turkish Christians. In the process, the structure was desecrated and plastered upon, covering the Christian murals, mosaics and frescos—and minarets were added to the exterior sides of the building.
For about 500 years, the iconic cathedral served as one of the most important mosques in Istanbul until the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, ordered that the mosque be converted into a museum.
Atatürk converted Hagia Sophia mosque into a museum
In 1934, the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as a gesture of goodwill and Turkey’s devotion to secularism, converted the mosque into a museum, as “a monument for all civilization.”
Claiming that the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul was just a stone’s throw away from Hagia Sophia, there was no dearth of praying grounds for Muslims, Ataturk argued, paving the way for the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum.
With the end of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk ended the role of religion in the state and closed religious institutions. Byzantine churches, cathedrals were converted into museums and tourist spots where people could come and marvel at the sheer brilliance of the Byzantine architecture without having to espouse a particular religion.