Erdoğan and the Hagia Sophia: Nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire

By: M. Hakan Yavuz

July 21, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

The evidence becoming more apparent through recent moves, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is unashamedly pushing his personal aspirations to become the modern sultan or caliph of the Sunni Muslim world. He attempts to accomplish this through his own misinformed sense of history by purposefully selecting means of political Islam to resurrect a powerful Muslim state in the ancestral mold of the former Ottoman Empire.

His decision to reconvert the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul to a mosque encapsulates his agenda of imperial delusions. Built in the middle of the sixth century as the Byzantine Empire’s cathedral, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453. 

In an essay published in a Cambridge University Press volume about the Hagia Sophia from the Justinian age to the present, Gülru Necipoğlu, a Turkish-born scholar of Islamic art who is on the Harvard faculty, wrote that “the appropriation of Hagia Sophia as an imperial and religious symbol by the Ottoman sultans had involved an awareness of its former significance.” She adds that the Ottoman conversion in 1453 is a “striking example of cultural confrontation in a frontier zone where the conquerors chose to define their self-identity in terms of the conquered, while simultaneously remaining meaningful to their own past.” As Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir of the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Religious Minorities noted on Twitter, the Christian imagery remained uncovered for more than three centuries, signaling that “many Ottoman sultans did not have a problem praying under the image of the Virgin and the Baby in the apse.”

It was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, at the founding of the Turkish Republic, who converted the mosque into a museum, which occurred in 1934 under the Ministry of Education’s jurisdiction. This was a clear sign of Ataturk’s commitment to the new republic’s humanistic, secular identity. As Necipoğlu concludes, the national museum proved its “remarkable flexibility in adapting to a new context, a flexibility that ensured its continued life through the ages.” 

Ataturk’s decision triggered ressentiment in Turkey’s conservative, religious groups that has festered since the 1930s. However, with the gradual emergence of Islamist political parties in recent generations, one could already see, beginning in 1991, the efforts to restore the Hagia Sophia to its former grandeur as an Ottoman mosque. In that year, a hall was reserved exclusively for Muslim prayers. In 2016, a full-time imam was appointed, who leads the Islamic call to prayer (known as ezan in Turkish). 

In my new book, Nostalgia for the Empire: The Politics of Neo-Ottomanism, I lay out how Erdoğan seeks to remold Turkey in the form of an imagined, ahistorical conceptualization of the former Ottoman Empire. Contra Ataturk, who valued the vitality of intellectual history, Erdoğan situates Turkey’s Islamist identity in the Ottoman past, unlike Ataturk who envisioned a progressive, enlightened secular identity for his nation. Plainly, Erdoğan wants to restore Turkey as an Ottoman caliphate, remade in his own vision.

Erdoğan’s Hagia Sophia decision is perhaps the clearest example to date of how he and his most loyal supporters espouse a political agenda predicated on nostalgia for the former Ottoman grandeur. They insist that the Kemalist reforms since the founding of the republic had unfairly chained the people from realizing fully their spiritual and cultural identities (that is, Islam). 

Erdoğan’s decision also was timed to serve his interests for political survival. The interwoven array of his attempts to consolidate his powers—especially in the aftermath of the failed 2016 coup, mounting evidence of corruption, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and worsening economic conditions—has made Erdoğan increasingly vulnerable. New opposition leaders are former Erdoğan loyalists, who have rediscovered their principled commitments to sustaining the constitutional integrity upon which the republic was founded. They include two of the highest-ranking AKP politicians who now have left the party: Ali Babacan, former deputy prime minister, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, former prime minister. Their new parties have cut deeply into Erdoğan’s strongest conservative, Islamist supporting base. Hagia Sophia is Erdoğan’s desperate attempt to stanch the bleeding and reaffirm his role in leading Islamist and Turkish nationalists. 

Turkey’s economy, which had expanded impressively previously, is in ruins because of inept bureaucracy along with unchecked corruption and nepotism, all happening under the watch of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak. The country’s foreign investment streams have vanished as prospects worry about being tainted by the Erdoğan government’s corrupt practices. Unemployment already had risen to its highest levels in the year prior to the global pandemic. Therefore, Erdoğan needed a political distraction and opportunity to remind his grassroots political supporters that he shared their concerns—hence, Hagia Sophia. 

Since 2013, Erdoğan has promulgated a new vision of Turkey defined foremost by its Islamic identity, which, unfortunately, can be read only as supremacist and exclusionary in his rhetoric. Erdoğan once tried briefly to pass himself off as an enlightened cosmopolite in his rise to political power. However, he never let go of the roots that today influence his governing philosophy.

He was raised and educated in an imam hatip school (religious seminary) with an Islamic-focused curriculum couched in deep resentment against secularized Turkey and western influences they saw as forcing them to deny their true identities. The politics of resentment in Turkey evokes similar movements elsewhere. It is nativist, nationalist, and vengeful to the point of cruelty. His experiences as a youth certainly were filled with stories and hopes that at some point the Hagia Sophia would be restored as a grand mosque.

Thus, he sees this as achieving a major act of political vengeance. He intends to open the museum to prayer on July 24, the anniversary date of the Lausanne Treaty signing, which established the territory of the Turkish Republic. He sees it as culminating a vision of his sole intellectual muse who died more than 35 years ago—Necip Fazil Kısakürek, a racist, anti-Semitic Islamist who tirelessly advocated for reversing Atatürk’s secularizing course. Kısakürek saw the restoration of the Hagia Sophia as essential. To wit: Albayrak sent a tweet reading, “As master Necip Fazil Kısakürek said 55 years ago: ‘Wait, youngsters. Either today or tomorrow, Hagia Sophia will be opened.’”

Hagia Sophia also is integral to Erdoğan’s campaign to make Istanbul the headquarters for the Muslim Brotherhood. If achieved, Erdoğan would move forward in completing his project for transforming the Turkish Republic into a nation governed exclusively by his own amoral, ahistorical understanding of Islam. The polarizing potential would destroy the republic. 

However, many also support Erdoğan’s decision. While Erdoğan’s conceptualization of Islam is rich in ritualistic splendor, its moral foundations are empty. The ritualistic practices of Islamic piety have been on the rise in Turkey, but one also should note that ethical and moral concerns are not being voiced to hold public officials accountable for the egregious practices of corruption, nepotism, and outright theft of public monies. Though, a fresh wave of political opponents, who once belonged to Erdoğan’s closest circle, indicate just how tenuous the political landscape is in Turkey.

There is a generational split at work as well. Disillusioned youth in Turkey are turning to other realms of spiritual practices and faith, as interest in deism and non-Abrahamic religions has grown. Many are deeply concerned that Turkey in 2023, which should then be celebrating its centennial as an independent republic, will instead be facing its worst existential crisis. To them, Erdoğan’s decision about Hagia Sophia is a dark omen, and time is running out to reverse a deeply damaging course.

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