Hagia Sophia: World Heritage Site becomes a mosque

About an international controversy and vision

By Youssef Kanjou and Michael Seifert

On 24th July 2020 the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was reopened as a mosque. Before that it was a museum, which is the main tourist attraction in Turkey with over three million visitors annually. The Turkish president had decided and announced this a few weeks earlier, after the highest Turkish court had cleared the way for it. Recep Erdoğan, thus, triggered an international controversy with several protests. But why does half the world seem to be arguing about this?

The Hagia Sophia has been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1985. It was opened under the Roman Emperor Justinian in 537 AD. Its construction, which took five years, involved almost 10 000 workers. The church was not named after a Christian saint, as is usual. The name “Hagia Sophia” means “divine wisdom”. The building is 82 meters long, the dome is 55 meters high and the diameter is 30 meters; it is currently the highest religious building in Istanbul.

Throughout its history, the Hagia Sophia has absorbed, like a mosaic, impressions and influences of Roman and Byzantine art, not to mention Islamic influences: This has made it a unique architectural structure in the world. It was a cathedral for 916 years, a mosque for almost 481 years and a museum for about 85 years. Despite all these changes, the architectural-artistic qualities of the building have not diminished.

When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, and four minarets were added for this purpose. The main building was not affected by this. The Byzantine art forms inside were preserved under a plaster cover. Islamic motives were added. Some of them were later removed, so that the Christian frescoes could be seen again.

In 1936, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, but it did not exhibit antiques as in the big museums. The building itself became an archaeological masterpiece. This distinguishes it from the usual approach of modernism: a large number of archaeological buildings became museums in order to preserve them and breathe life into them.

It is reported that 350 000 people from all over Turkey came to the inauguration of the mosque through Friday prayer on 24th July, praying in a large area around the building. This shows the great symbolic importance of Hagia Sophia for Muslims in Turkey. Deutschlandfunk correspondent Susanne Günten experienced the atmosphere as peaceful and friendly, and at the same time solemn: “It was obviously important for the people to be there on this day. A day which they perceive as a turning point in the history of the republic, but also as a turning point in their own lives”.

However, only a few invited guests of Head of State Erdoğan were allowed into the mosque itself. Inside, the Christian Byzantine frescoes, which are unique in the world, were covered with white strips of cloth, but they are only supposed to hang there during prayer times. It is quite clear that in the Ayasofya (as the Turkish name suggests) visitors will continue to be allowed access (now even free of charge), as is the case with all other mosques in Istanbul – regardless of the tourist or religious purpose of the visit.

So far, everything seems fine. But this is not the case. The transformation clearly has a political motivation and is the subject of political propaganda. This was particularly evident when the head of the Turkish religious office climbed up to the pulpit to deliver the sermon, carrying a sword. This sword of Sultan Muhammad, who occupied Istanbul in the 15th century, can be seen as a symbol of the Muslim reconquest of the building that had been “lost” due to the separation of state and religion by Atatürk. Many observers also ascribe to Erdoğan the dream of a rebirth of the Ottoman Empire under his leadership, as evidenced by the construction of large mosques in the Balkans, which he finances.

This is countered by the conviction that the Hagia Sophia has historical, archaeological and religious significance for many peoples. As a result of multiple transformations, it has become a “building of human heritage”, because the building no longer belongs to one particular culture, but to many cultures. The Hagia Sophia has overcome the religious, national and archaeological character and, thus, represents a broad spectrum of today’s human society.

So, why not also develop the vision that Muslims and Christians could hold their religious celebrations in this building, not at the same time but in the same place nonetheless?

A vision that the beautiful Albanian film of 2018 “A Light between the Clouds” deals with. The film tells the story of how the mosque in a village in the mountains is being restored. On the wall there is a Christian painting under the plaster. This means that the mosque was a church before the Ottoman Empire. This leads to conflict between the Muslim and Christian communities in the village. But in the end, both communities alternately use the building as a place of worship. In Berlin, this vision is just becoming reality in a newly constructed building: there, on the foundation of a destroyed medieval church, “something unique in the world is being created: Jews, Christians and Muslims together build a house under the roof of which there is a synagogue, a church and a mosque. A house of prayer and interdisciplinary teaching. A house of encounter, for getting to know each other and for the exchange between people of different religions. A house also for those who are distant from the religions” is how the foundation of the house describes its intention. (https://house-of-one.org/de)

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Foto: tünews INTERNATIONAL; Youssef Kanjou.

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