Compression of History and Boundary-Building in the Hagia Sophia Controversy

By: Belgin Turan Özkaya

July 29, 2020

Responding to: Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

Compression of History and Boundary-Building in the Hagia Sophia Controversy

The recent change in the use and legal status of Hagia Sophia implemented by a questionable ruling of the Turkish Council of State, privileging fifteenth-century Ottoman endowment law over that of the current state, and decreed by President Erdoğan caused national and international pandemonium. Considered an unsurpassable structural and architectural marvel with splendid mosaic decorations, almost 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia had been built in the sixth century, probably on the site of a pagan temple and earlier churches which were destroyed at riots, and served as a major Orthodox cathedral and the seat of the Patriarchate more than nine centuries. After being taken by the Ottomans in 1453, it was converted into a major mosque and maintained that status almost six centuries until 1934. Within the legal system of the newly founded secular state of the Republic of Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman Empire, Hagia Sophia’s official status was changed again with the aim of establishing a museum. As much as it might have been colored by political motivations, the attempt to embrace Byzantine heritage overtly, even, as shown by Edhem Eldem, to project a proper museum of Byzantine art in Hagia Sophia where Byzantine collections of the former imperial museum could have been displayed, was a radical move on the part of the new state in that historical juncture. It also was much more in accord with our current understanding of cultural heritage vis-à-vis the recent inflammatory decision to restore the mosque function to one of the most revered cultural sites of the world.

Before and after the conversion decision, legitimate outcries regarding the future protection and accessibility of the building, perhaps with the exception of Sunni men, and its treasured decoration were voiced. The dust raised by the decision was intensified with the provocative July 24 opening ceremony, a faux post-conquest conversion ceremony the object of which was ambivalent, the museum space of the secular republic as much as the Orthodox cathedral that Hagia Sophia ceased to be 567 years ago. Nevertheless, the American and Greek Orthodox Churches, in a symmetrical fashion, declared July 24 a day of mourning, overlooking the fact that what was being converted was a heritage site not a cathedral. 

The compression of history and relapse to national and religious boundary-building were not confined to popular political and religious discourses. In academic circles—where we have been studying blurred boundaries, intertwined cultures, and global patterns for decades—Hagia Sophia started to be viewed solely in the light of major thresholds of its history and frozen as either cathedral, mosque, or museum, all with proper dates, in different phases of its long life. Byzantinists concerned for the future of the mosaics wrote about the situation of them during the Ottoman era quite laconically, underlining that they were covered over without further articulation of what has been actually a centuries-long process. On social media, a call was made to academics to abandon the Ottoman-era names of mosques converted from former Byzantine churches accompanied with a list of mosques that, according to that logic, “do not exist” in contradistinction to their former forms apparently frozen as such in the imagination of these colleagues. In the whirlwind of the controversy, the 2021 International Congress of Byzantine Studies planned in Istanbul was cancelled with a vague explanation touching upon the recent developments in cultural heritage in Turkey. 

These schematic perceptions of past, anathema to any proper and nuanced conception of history, are particularly so to the current historiographical tendency to study buildings and sites diachronically in longue durée, enabling us to detect continuities between successive cultures and polities. Different than worn-out historiographical conventions that myopically focus on portions of sites and buildings’ accumulated pasts, that are easily conflated with current national and religious territorializations and end up emphasizing difference, the longue durée provides us a wider perspective, opening the possibility of an inclusive history of continuities, borrowings, and appropriations. Along those lines, the continuities between eastern Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman traditions and cultures have been subject to study for some time. From that perspective, the Ottoman appropriation of Hagia Sophia is an act of spoliation, a violent break that also meant continuity and preservation on a different level. If we focus on the Ottoman-era Hagia Sophia as much as its earlier phases, as done by Gülru Necipoğlu and others, we learn that its figural imagery had been left uncovered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and, despite the seventeenth-century interventions, some still survived until the eighteenth century to be uncovered during the extensive repairs of the mid-nineteenth century and covered again after some thoughts about leaving them exposed. 

Amid the polarizations caused by the controversy, particularly between “secularists” and “Islamicists,” Hagia Sophia’s conversion into museum is attributed exclusively to Turkish republican authorities by overlooking its gradual transformation into a “monument” in the Ottoman era. In the nineteenth century within the context of Ottoman modernization attempts, Hagia Sophia together with Topkapı Palace, abandoned by the sultan for the more “European” Dolmabahçe, had already become principal tourist destinations. Contrary to the recent compression of it to the reign of Mehmed II, the very long Ottoman past had many phases marked by changes and contradictions. Already in the nineteenth century, an understanding of museums, antiquities, and “cultural heritage” had been developing among the Ottomans alongside a modern consciousness of history including their own. Not only the establishment of an imperial museum but perhaps more than that the curation of an exhibition of “historical costumes,” left behind with reforms, indicate the budding sense of historical and cultural artifact among the Ottomans, opening the possibility for the appreciation of sites such as Hagia Sophia beyond their spiritual and imperial uses and meanings. 

The Hagia Sophia controversy showed that we must insist on nuanced histories that disclose connections rather than differences alongside unexpected alignments, such as the Ottoman interest in cultural heritage, and develop transnational values including a genuine and more convincing concept of cultural heritage, while taking secularism seriously for any geography as the condition of freedom of faith. If we do not, we are bound to fall back to deadlocks of national and religious boundaries and will be perpetually exposed to anachronistic political and religious spectacles.

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