Erasing History at the Hagia Sophia

By: Esra Akcan

July 27, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

During the 3-hour broadcasting of the Hagia Sophia’s opening ceremony as a mosque, the main focus was on architecture, in addition to President Erdoğan. Professional cameras and drones encircled the building from the outside in its prestigious location at the intersection of three waters and next to other architectural symbols of the Ottoman Empire such as the Topkapı Palace and the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. They panned the interior from the dome to the newly carpeted floor, from the apse, bema to the minbar, and occasionally to the galleries where far fewer women prayed. This is not surprising, given the unique splendor of the building’s form, scale, structural integrity, and craftwork on its surfaces.  

For art and architectural historians, there are only a handful examples in the entire world history that could illustrate geometric excellence, spatial and visual distinction, technological progress, and intertwined histories of different cultures and religions, as effectively as the Hagia Sophia. It is a must-have in art and architectural history surveys, a must-see for students, a must-preserve for cultural heritage enthusiasts around the world. I will leave it to the readers to reach out to the scholarship in Byzantine and Ottoman studies to learn more about the numerous spatial and visual aspects of this unique building. When its relation to state power is concerned, like many comparable monuments of its grandeur, Hagia Sophia reflected the imperial ambitions of the rulers who controlled the land on which it stood at any given moment in time. However, for a historian of modern architecture like myself, Hagia Sophia was exceptional for an additional reason. It was also a rare monument that implied the acceptance of some accountability for state violence and imperial ambitions—a unique attribute that is now lost with its conversion into a mosque.

Many commentators remarked that the date of the opening ceremony was selected deliberately as the anniversary of the League of Nations’ Lausanne Treaty of 1923. In addition to marking the international recognition of Turkey as a newly founded nation-state, this treaty represents an important decision that is not irrelevant here. The Exchange of Populations was signed as an annex to the Lausanne Treaty, which mandated the compulsory migration of all Christian “Greeks” in today’s Turkey to Greece, and all Muslim “Turks” in Greece to Turkey. The committee composed of Western powers, in addition to the representatives of the associated “nations,” decided to implement an irreversible and compulsory mass migration, rather than employing the existing international laws of minority protection that were in effect at the time, or rather than regulating voluntary transfers and giving individuals the right to self-determination as it was the case for other borders in Europe after World War I. Istanbul was exempt from the decision, but the committee divided the exchangeable populations residing in thousands of villages and cities into two purified categories, which assumed the alignment of religion, nation, and territory, regardless of the actual diversity of peoples, and whether there were hostile or peaceful relations on the ground. Even though the precise numbers have been under dispute, the treaty affected close to two million people. Greece’s Muslim population decreased from 20% to 6% as a result, while Turkey’s non-Muslim population decreased from 20% to 2.5% due to the sum of wars and populations transfers. 

The history of this compulsory mass migration has been written separately from the official nationalist perspectives of Greece and Turkey. However, the experiences of those who were subject to this population exchange on both sides of the Aegean Sea differed significantly from the declarations of the Western diplomats, as well as the celebratory official histories of the polarized nation-states. I invite you all to read the suffering and pain in the individual testimonies of these enforced migrants, which reached the public only after the 2000s. Architecture held a probing place in this population transfer as well. Emigrants were free to carry or transport their “movable property,” but “immovable property” had to be “liquidated,” which was prone to countless messy transactions. The two governments went back and forth trying to make a deal, and eventually in 1930, signed the Treatise of Friendship and Commerce in order to solve the unresolved issues for the liquidation of properties, as a result of which the remaining values were transferred to respective governments. 

Having served as a mosque since 1453, Hagia Sophia was not part of these transactions, of course, just like the Istanbulite Greeks who were exempt from the treaty. And yet, the friendship agreement gave way to a few temporary handshakes. For example, the Greek government made an appeal to the Turkish government, and the Exchange Fund financed the journey of a Soumelite monk who undug the treasures underground and took them to Greece. Even though not officially related to these contracts, the Byzantine remnants in Hagia Sophia started being revealed in 1931. The Christian symbols and mosaics that had been covered with plaster during the building’s use as a mosque were restored before it opened as a museum in 1934. 

Despite all the shortcomings, Hagia Sophia was unique as a museum dedicated to the art and architecture of multiple cultures and religions, because countless churches all over Anatolia after the population exchange remained not only empty, but also neglected. These edifices are still left to decay in the landscape. Moreover, with the ever-expanding Turkification and more recently Islamization ideology, the life of non-Sunni people deteriorated with the tax Law of Capital Levy; the beatings and destruction of non-Muslim property on the September 5-6, 1955 uprising; the expulsion of Istanbul Greeks in 1964; the closure of the theological seminary connected to the Ecumenical Throne; and the abandonment of minority schools including the iconic seminary building on Istanbul’s Heybeliada island. In the midst of this hatred, xenophobia, and intolerance, the museum of Hagia Sophia had remained an exception.

Not unlike U.S. President Trump’s manipulation of religious symbols such as holding a Bible in hand in front of St. John’s Church, Turkey’s President Erdoğan has decided to make a spectacular point during a global pandemic by turning Hagia Sophia into a symbol of his own faith. From the viewpoint of architecture, turning the museum into a mosque erases both the secular and Christian history engraved on the building, metaphorically, and to a certain extent, literally. Even though Erdoğan assured the cultural heritage will not be damaged and the building will remain accessible to all, the first architectural interventions raise concerns. A fast-produced green carpet hides the important marble floor and damages the extraordinary acoustics. The curtains conceal the Virgin and Child in the apse and figures on the bema. The scaffolding tower used for restoration is turned into a panel of persuasion. How were the curtains blocking the mosaics installed without intervening in the structure? If they will be pulled aside after each prayer by remote control, where is the electrical/mechanical wiring? Will the continuous carpet on the marble floor be removed after each prayer to bring out the original floor? Were internationally recognized preservation experts consulted? How will the experience of visiting the building remain the same, especially for women and non-Sunni populations around the world? Given the lack of transparency, as well as the government’s track record on recent conversions of churches to mosques, there is no reason to be optimistic about the preservation of the building’s architectural integrity. 

To many, the conversion of the mosque into a museum in 1934 made the building a monument to secularism, like, for example, the conversion of the Church of St. Genevieve into the Panthéon of Paris made it a monument to the French Revolution. Moreover, this gesture could have been made a symbol of accountability and reconciliation in the face of historical violence. It was an acknowledgment that respect for multicultural art and architectural heritage should outdo nationalist sentiments. The museum was an invitation to international friendship, so that no religion erases imperially the other with military power. 

Instead, Erdogan’s supporters defend the building’s current conversion into a mosque with stories of victory, victimhood, and revenge. The current government’s advocates keep reminding us of Istanbul’s conquest in 1453 to justify the change in use. With a sword in his hand, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs gave his first khutbah in the opening ceremony by referencing the oppression of Muslims around the world, as if all victims are by definition and remain forever good people, and as if this regime has not caused the suffering of those that they deem different. In today’s context, this decision is rather an imperial move posing as anti-imperialism, revenge posing as justice.

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