Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

July 17, 2020

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Interior of the Hagia Sophia

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently issued a decree converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, ending its 80-year status as a museum. The recent move is part of a longer history of the Hagia Sophia as a religiously contested space. It was converted from a church to a mosque in 1453, when Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire. The Hagia Sophia was then converted to a museum in 1934 by a decree of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the constitutionally secular Republic of Turkey. Now, the Hagia Sophia enters a new phase of its history and will soon host religious services in addition to welcoming visitors, taking on a status similar to the Notre Dame Cathedral or Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. Questions as to how the Hagia Sophia relates to religious identity, domestic and foreign politics, and Turkish secularism remain central in light of its conversion from museum to mosque.

The implications of transitioning the site into a mosque are far reaching. Already, the move has been met with disapproval from a wide coalition of international figures, from Pope Francis and Orthodox leaders to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. President Erdoğan, however, has defended the move as being within the sovereign rights of Turkey. More broadly, the Hagia Sophia controversy is part and parcel of the changing relationship between religion and nationalism in Turkey under the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). Conversion of the site, along with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, invites further reflection on religion and secularism, foreign policy, and domestic politics in Turkey.

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How does the Hagia Sophia controversy map onto broader trends in Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy behavior, including soft power projection? To whom is President Erdoğan appealing (both in Turkey and abroad) by converting the site into a mosque? Why did Erdoğan reintroduce the mosque-museum issue at this moment in time? What are the ethical, historical, and religious challenges of converting the Hagia Sophia—a site important in both Islam and Orthodox Christianity—into a mosque? What role might ecumenical and interfaith dialogue play in the aftermath of the decision?

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