The historic Hagia Sophia in Turkey’s Istanbul has been reconverted from a museum to mosque by the country’s Islamist-nationalist president and ruling AKP leader Recep Tiyyip Erdogan early this month. It has hit the headlines across the world including India since it has a big impact in global politics. As fanatics of all hues have found legitimacy in their mutual misdeeds across the time and space, Muslim fundamentalists have generally welcomed Erdogan’s move as he himself referred to destruction or denigration of mosques in European parts of former Turkish Ottoman Empire. Though he has promised to keep the huge complex to people of other faiths as part of Islamic tradition of openness, his political intentions are clear.
In Indian subcontinent, Erdogan’s apologists considered it a tit for tat on Hindu nationalist Modi government’s decision to build the Rama Janambhoomi temple at the very site of Babri mosque in Ayodhya, claimed as the birthplace of the Hindu god-king. But some rational-minded Muslim netizens have opposed Erdogan’s move on the ground of moral incongruity of this forced backward push to history’s wheel. They felt it would only justify RSS-BJP’s demolition of Babri mosque. The historic mosque, named after the first Mughal ruler of India was demolished 27 years back by the RSS Parivar, the ideological fountainhead of Modi’s BJP. On the other hand, the Parivar has denounced the decision but found vindication for their acts in Ayodhya as well as for their conviction that Muslims understand only language of coercion.
Interestingly, both Erdogan and Modi have used their country’s top courts to create legal trapping for social-political perfidies to the land’s secular republican constitutions. More worrisome is the deepest rots in our popular mindset across the world, from Turkey to India, Russia to America. The neo-con jingoists have succeeded to con most of us, at least for the time being in the name of Muhammad, Rama, Christ and Buddha. In this background, this two-part article is an effort to look back at the history of politics around Hagia Sophia and examine parallels in Erdogan and Modi’s moves as well as their huge implications in Turkish, Indian and global politics.
Glimpses of Hagia Sophia’s History
The majestic architectural marvel stands on the geographical bridge between Europe and Asia as well as cultural confluence of East and West at cosmopolitan Constantinople, first named after Roman emperor Constantine and later renamed as Istanbul after Ottoman conquest. The edifice was built by the Eastern Roman or Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 537 AD, though the constructions of its earlier edifices were credited to his predecessors. As Constantinople became the power centre of Christian Empire, more so after the fall of Rome as the cradle of Roman Civilization in the West, Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya became the grandest church of the mighty realm. It witnessed the theological-territorial schisms between the Roman Catholic Vatican and Orthodox Eastern Church based in Constantinople and changed hands between the two Christian sects.
After almost a millennium, the city fell to the siege of Ottoman armies under Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. It is pertinent today to note that it was no typical Christianity Vs Islam war, though memories of Crusades and Jihads for the control of holy land of Jerusalem ran deep. The ethno-religious tension between the ‘Latin’ Catholic and Greek-Russian orthodox churches as well as aloofness of major West European Christian powers helped the Islamic ‘Fatih’ or the conqueror to breach the fortified walls of the ancient citadel in May 1453 after a long siege. Also, there were Christians who led the Sultan’s army in his final assault. On the other hand, there were anti-Ottoman Turkish forces which perished by defending the Byzantine throne. Mehmet sacked the city, allowed his army to loot and rape for three days as it was the custom of medieval time and then pardoned the Christians.
The sultan renamed the city and converted the Hagia Sophia church into a mosque. But he neither changed its name nor destroyed the mosaics on its magnificent walls and the mighty dome which depicted Christ and his mother. But he covered them with plasters, added Islamic features around it including Minarets and inside a Mirhab, a niche in the wall of a mosque, at the point nearest to Mecca, towards which the congregation faces to pray. He even allowed Greek Orthodox Church to remain functional while allowing their rival Catholics to worship. Turkish nationalists would later laud it as a sign of his tolerant mindset. But historians pointed to his realpolitik concerns over Christian divisions as well as his further ambitions. Taking his claim to the inheritance of the fledgling Roman Empire, Mehmet II declared himself ‘Kayser-i-Rum’ or Caesar of Rome. He co-opted members of the family of the last Byzantine emperor and his nobility not only to pursue his claims to Rome but also to extend his realm in Christian southern Europe.
Although most powerful including the Pope in the Christendom were deeply wounded by the loss of Constantinople and wanted another Crusade, the balance of power was tilted towards Ottomans. Hagia Sophia remained the symbol of Islamic empire’s victory over the Christianity as the house of Usman/Uthman (hence, Ottoman in European corruption) extended their domain for another 400 years in Europe. They even laid siege on Vienna, the seat of Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire. The hereditary sultans became the Caliphs or temporal-religious heads of Sunni Islamic world (sans rival Shia Persia) while presiding over a vast multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire across two continents. In the meantime, they continued to add grandeur to Ayasofya and glory to their own power. They met Christian leaders from occupied Europe under the dome of Christ, albeit plastered.
For the next almost 500 years, the Ottoman religious ideology depended much on their political exigencies. The empire destroyed or denigrated some Christian monuments in ‘Rumeli’ (Roman or Rome-influenced) south Europe and built others or promoted syncretic culture as some of their contemporary Mughal monarchs did in Indian subcontinent. After all, Islamic theology not only derives its continuity from the patriarch Abraham from the Old Testament and recognizes Christ as an important one in the long line of the Biblical-Quranic prophets. But it rejects Christ’s divine birth and status as the Son of God, an essential to the Christian belief. Jews, Christians and Muslims are still called the children of Abraham.
Hagia in the era of Ataturk
The ideo-political import of Hagia Sophia changed again with the fall of Ottoman power in the wake of World War I during 1914-18. The victorious allied powers from the industrial West were keen on dividing mainland Turkey among themselves and residual Caliphate. They promoted religious nationalism in Christian Greece, Balkans and Armenia and Arab nationalism in West Asia. Turkish nationalist military officers under Mustafa Kamal Pasha, called ‘Young Turks’, fought successful wars against the Western powers but also wanted to industrialize their nation and modernize its culture a la Europe. They abolished dynastic Sultaniat and pan-Islamic Caliphate to get rid of Ottoman decadence.
His reforms included changes in Turkish language to make it Roman alphabet-based by replacing Arabic, the language of Quran enraged the Islamist traditionalists. His drives for secularization of education and culture including dress codes for men and women along with bans on public display of religiosity further distanced them. He along with his divorced wife, Latifa is credited with the creation of public space for Turkish women. Women are evidently more visible and instrumental in the social-political life of the land today than Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries.
Called the Ataturk or father of Turks, Pasha finally turned Hagia Sophia / Ayasofya into a secular museum as a reminder of multi-faith, multi-ethnic history of his land and its people by a state council order in 1934. Some historians say he intended it since the birth of the republic in 1923 but waited knowing well the storm would rage at home. This move has been the eyeball of the traditionalist-modernist or Pan-Islamist- nationalist clashes in Turkish politics and larger society till today. Islamists of all sheds inside and outside Turkey have been cursing the Pasha for this cardinal sin and sent him to hell for thousands of times.
Some commentators pointed to Pasha’s geo-political moves on the eve of the WWII as he had converted Hagia Sophia into a museum from a mosque in 1934, reportedly to assuage the feelings of Christian Greece, Rumania and Yugoslavia. All these countries had joined him in signing the Balkan Pact of 1934, promising not to promote their mutual claims in bordering areas and keep the former Ottoman Europe out of the clutches of rising Hitler-Mussolini nexus and their clashes with the West. We must remember that both the WWI and II were triggered by the ethno-religious-linguistic violence within heterogeneous but fragile empires and countries with big minorities. Hostile powers manipulated the minorities to advance their own agenda while majoritarian home governments repressed minorities considering them the fifth columns.
This happened to Ottoman Empire too. War-time nationalist homogenization moves led to controversial ethnic cleansing of Christian Orthodox Greeks and Armenians from Anatolia and the rest of Turkish mainland. These triggered the exodus of Christian and Muslim populations, to the extent of almost formal exchange of population, between Turkey and Greece, Armenia and Balkans. Turkish nationalist Pasha was also accused of being part of it. Today Christians of all denominations together are a miniscule minority in Turkey.
However, faith was not the only determinant for nationalism of the Ataturk, the father of Turks as he was called. Kurds, though Muslim by faith, are the largest non-Turk ethnic people in modern Turkey have been insisting for a free Kurdistan along the Turku-Syrian as well Iran-Iraq borders till today. They have remained a thorn to the nationalist side since his days and part of big power ballgames.
In this context, his moves to turn Ayasofya a museum open to multi-faith people of Turkey and its neighborhood can be seen as an effort to douse the flame close to home before WWII. Though he died in November 1938, Kamalist Turkey remained neutral till the fag end of the war and joined the US-Soviet allied camp when Germany, WWI ally of Ottomans was almost defeated. Islamists resented his move for 86 years but could not turn the table on him till Erdogan; the neo-Ottoman did it on July 10, 2020.
The piece is author’s personal opinion.