Turks were a great nation even before they adopted Islam. This religion did not help the Arabs, Iranians, Egyptians and others to unite with Turks to form a nation. Conversely, it weakened the Turks’ national relations; it numbed Turkish national feelings and enthusiasm. This was natural, because Mohammedanism was based on Arab nationalism above all nationalities. — Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938)


The Hagia Sophia has become the focal point in Turkish society’s current struggle between secularists and Islamists. The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 as a secular, parliamentary democracy with a president as head of state. In 1935, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum and opened to the public by the Turkish government led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938). It became a major tourist attraction in Istanbul. It was turned into a museum, presumably, to reconcile the troubled history between Christianity and Islam with the realities of Turkey’s modern, secular state. The Hagia Sophia was the seat of Orthodox Christianity, the Patriarch of Constantinople, for several centuries (537–1204), a Roman Catholic cathedral from (1204–1261) and back to the Orthodox Church (1261–1453) until the conquest of the city by the Turks. It served as the first of several Imperial Mosques for the Ottoman Empire from 1453-1931. In the present, the drive to restore the Hagia Sophia as a mosque gained momentum. In 2013, Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, expressing this desire, said: “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.” (as cited in Ansa med) On July 10, 2020, President Erdogan signed a decree, ordering the restoration of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia has a fascinating and sometimes troubled history since the onset of its construction in the 532. The Emperor Justinian I (c. 482-565) ordered its creation following the Nika riots, a tax revolt directed against Justinian by the residents of Constantinople. The uprising was crushed, and the Hagia Sophia commissioned. It was to be built on the ruin of the Church that was burned to the ground. The Hagia Sophia was designed and constructed under the tutelage of Anthemius and Isidore of Miletus. The intention was to build a grand monument to the glory of the Church and the Emperor. Christianity was established as the state religion of the Roman Empire with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380. The Hagia Sophia was recognized as an architectural wonder in its day as noted by Paul the Silentiary who observed, “I say, renowned Roman Capitol, give way! My Emperor has so far overtopped that wonder as great God is superior to an idol!” (as cited in Hagia Sophia: Facts, History & Architecture)

The Hagia Sophia continued to be the focal point of religious and social upheaval in the history of the Byzantine Empire. There were two iconoclast periods in the 8th and 9th centuries. These were disputes across Christendom over the veneration of sacred images known as icons. The campaign against icons was part of a general reformation of the Church and state instituted by Emperor Leo III (685-785). He sought to purify the Church, centralize it as much as possible under the Patriarch of Constantinople and strengthen and centralize his position as Emperor. This reformation led to persecution. Monasteries were destroyed, monks executed, tortured, or banished. Reliquaries, shrines and bodies of saints buried in churches were destroyed. The images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saints and Emperors in the Hagia Sophia were removed. In the post-Iconoclast period, the veneration of icons was restored, and new mosaics installed.

The dispute in Christendom over theological issues such as the addition of a line to the Nicene Creed, the filioque, and the Pope’s supremacy led to the Great Schism or East-West Schism in 1024. Papal legates entered the Church of Hagia Sophia during the Divine Liturgy and deposited a bull of excommunication on the altar. From that moment on, there existed a rift between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Roman Catholic Churches. This rift was further cemented in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, when Frankish Crusaders and Venetian merchants sacked Constantinople itself, looting Hagia Sophia and various other Orthodox holy sites, and converting them to Latin Catholic worship. The Frankish Crusaders also destroyed the Imperial Library of Constantinople. Various sacred artifacts from these Orthodox holy places were taken to Western Europe.

Constantinople was conquered by a Turkish army led by Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481) in 1453, a conqueror who proved most magnanimous. As the Byzantine historian George Sphrantzes, an eyewitness to the conquest of Constantinople noted:

On the third day after the fall of our city, the Sultan celebrated his victory with a great, joyful triumph. He issued a proclamation: the citizens of all ages who had managed to escape detection were to leave their hiding places throughout the city and come out into the open, as they were [to] remain free and no question would be asked. He further declared the restoration of houses and property to those who had abandoned our city before the siege, if they returned home, they would be treated according to their rank and religion, as if nothing had changed. (As cited in Wikipedia)

Of course, one noteworthy change was the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into the first Imperial Mosque of the emerging Ottoman Empire. It entailed the removal of the altar, the whitewashing of the icons, the addition of the minarets, lustration urns and other Islamic architectural touches. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church continued under Ottoman rule. To this day, the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople remains in Istanbul. However, he is now subject to the Republic of Turkey’s authority and must be a citizen of Turkey to be elected Patriarch.

The Republic of Turkey was founded by Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. Ataturk was a staunch secularist; his faith was in the Turkish people and nation. He made the bold, if not drastic, decision to abolish the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. The last Caliph Abdülmecid II and his family were banished from Turkey and lived out their days in exile. Despite the abolition of the Caliphate, in the Republic of Turkey, Islam remains the dominant religion. Orthodox Christians, a religious minority, live alongside their Muslim neighbours in peace. The decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a museum, given its history as a site sacred to both the Christian and Muslim communities in Turkish society, was sound. It serves as a monument to the splendour of Byzantine and Ottoman art and architecture, and history.

The decision on the part of the Turkish Republic’s current Islamist government to make the Hagia Sophia a mosque once more is a bad idea, considering its historical importance to Orthodox Christendom. Who is to say that the Turkish Christian community does not have a competing claim to the Hagia Sophia as a place of worship. This desire to turn back the clock to undermine Turkish secularism and make Islam the dominant force in Turkish society goes against everything the founders of the Turkish Republic envisioned for the new Turkish community. There is no going back. The Turkish Republic has more in common with the Western world than with the Islamic world; it is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is seeking admission into the European Union. The Hagia Sophia has become the focal point in this social and religious upheaval yet again in Turkish society. I hope common sense prevails, and Turkish society does not lapse into Islamism, starting with the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum into a mosque. Only time will tell.

Posted by Geoffrey

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