Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia has stood for over 1,500 years, first as a cathedral, then as a mosque, and now as a museum. But a recent battle to return the Hagia Sophia to mosque status threatens to upend decades compromise and may bar some travelers from future visits.
The Battle Over Hagia Sophia
The Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment has asked Turkey’s Council of State to re-designate Hagia Sophia from a monument to a mosque.
Hagia Sophia was built as a Christian cathedral and completed in 537. For nearly a millennium, it served as a Christian house of worship. But Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of 1453.
Modern-day Turkey was founded in 1923 as a secular state, with religious liberty and a wall of separation between church/mosque and state. In 1935, Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum. The decision outlawed religious services and even group prayers there. Millions of tourists visit each year.
But Turkey has pivoted back toward Islam under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The former Mayor of Istanbul and Prime Minister has cloaked patriotism and Islam under the banner of his AKP party. He has called the decision to make Hagia Sophia a museum a “very big mistake.”
Step into the Hagia Sophia and its history will become clear. You’ll see ancient Christian mosaics next to Islamic calligraphic medallions. Outside, you see both the cathedral dome and the minarets that were later raised.
There is concern that if the Hagia Sophia reverts to a mosque, Christians pilgrims and all tourists will be banned.
The issue has even caught the attention of the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said:
“We urge the government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect Turkey’s diverse faith traditions and history, and to ensure it remains accessible to all.”
Earlier this year, I wrote about my struggle entering the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Muslim custodians have appropriated that space with historic links to the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths exclusively for themselves. I increasingly view that as tragic and unreasonable.
The Hagia Sophia is an architectural and artistic marvel and has important roots to the Christian and Islamic faith. It also belongs to the world in the sense that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.
I understand how majoritarian politics work…I also understand why a majoritarian Muslim country would want to revert Hagia Sophia to a house of worship. In some senses, it is a reasonable desire.
Whatever happens to the status of Hagia Sophia, I hope that the Christian mosaics are not covered. I also hope that tourists and Christian pilgrims are not barred from visiting. Unlike many mosques, the nearby Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is open to all, so there is some hope that even if Hagia Sophia converts to a mosque, tourists will still be welcomed outside of worship hours.
> Read More: Who Can Enter The Dome Of The Rock?
For any who want to decry this move by Turkey, we would all do well to remember that sectarian struggles are hardly unique to Turkey. But Hagia Sophia is an important landmark in human history and I would hate to see it closed off to the world, especially as so much of Turkey’s shift toward Islam seems more geared at consolidating power and encouraging division.