When I heard the rumors this fall, I have to confess, I dismissed them. And maybe it is only political posturing. But leading Turkish officials are actually talking about converting the famed Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque.
The Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom, was built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. (“Solomon,” the emperor cried when he saw the completed church, “I have surpassed thee!”). For 1000 years, it was the largest Christian cathedral in the world and the emblem of Byzantium. After the empire fell in 1453, the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque. About 500 years after that, the secular Kemalist government made it a museum. And so it has remained.
Now, however, a nationalist party has introduced legislation to reconvert the building to a Muslim place of worship. The idea has support at very high levels. In October, the imam at the neighboring Sultan Ahmet Mosque–a government official–called for Hagia Sophia to reopen as a mosque. Last month, at a public event in Istanbul, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, referred approvingly to two other churches-turned-mosques-turned-museums-turned-mosques-again, one in Trabzon and one in Iznik (once known as Nicea). And he made this comment about the Hagia Sophia itself: “We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque. We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”
Arinc’s implication is unmistakable. According to the Religion News Service, Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamist AKP, is trying to shore up its base ahead of March provincial elections. It’s smart politics. AKP rank-and-file see Kemalism as a huge historical mistake and wish to return to the pan-Islamism of the Ottoman Empire. Converting Byzantine and other historical Christian monuments from museums into mosques is a way of rejecting secularism and returning to Turkish roots. The Hagia Sophia is the greatest symbol of all. That’s why, in the words of one observer, “Supporting the reopening of Hagia Sophia has become the litmus test of the true believer.”
When it comes to appropriating the temples of the vanquished, no great religion is innocent. Historically, Christians often built churches on the ruins of pagan shrines. One of my favorite sites in Rome, the Basilica of San Clemente, sits atop a Mithraic temple, the ruins of which are still visible. After the Reconquista, Rod Dreher writes, Christians converted the great mosque of Cordoba into a cathedral. The point of such conduct is obvious. The victor wishes literally to squash the altars of the vanquished, to humiliate and demoralize followers of the old way. Our god is greater than yours.
But this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore in the civilized world. As Dreher writes, converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque now, after it has been a museum for decades, would be “a stunning act of cultural aggression” against Christians in Turkey, particularly the handful of Greeks who somehow have managed to hang on there. It would put the lie to claims of pluralism. And it would underline, as few other acts could, what Samuel Huntington famously called “the clash of civilizations.”