The Conversion of Hagia Sophia: Desire, Spectacle, and a Historical Re-Enactment

By: Ömür Harmanşah

July 31, 2020

Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque

The political spectacle of the conversion of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum and site of global heritage to a place of everyday Muslim worship has been discussed passionately by many in the last few weeks. In the following, I hope to join this debate to emphasize the fact that this radical conversion took place as a state spectacle and historical performance, and argue that the extraordinary architectural space of the Byzantine basilica has been re-appropriated as a site of an atavistic (albeit poorly coordinated) re-enactment of Sultan Mehmed II’s conquest. Secondly, I will suggest that Hagia Sophia has been an icon of secular modernity in Turkey, whereas the AKP government’s neo-Ottoman, neo-imperial gesture to recapture the holy space of the Hagia Sophia constitutes a legal, political, and indeed architectural undermining of the modernist institutions of museums and global cultural heritage, not unlike recent iconoclastic (although far more violent) acts of fundamentalist governments in the Middle East. Third, I will suggest that understanding the spatial violence and heritage injustice that resulted from the conversion requires a close listening to the diversity of voices and desires in the public imagination in Turkey, which stunningly reveals a range of reactions from nationalist conquest narratives to spiritual attachment to a deeply Ottoman space, conceived to have been held hostage since its conversion to a museum/architectural heritage site since the decree of 1934.

One of the courses that I particularly enjoy teaching at the university is called Architecture and Memory, where my students and I explore case studies of monuments and ordinary buildings which are both sites of memory for world communities and sites of conflict. Architectural monuments often have deep geo-histories (relatively much deeper than the human timeframe). These histories are materially imprinted with cultural and political layers, laid by different religious and other heritage groups, and their long-lasting legacies. The destruction of the giant rock-carved Buddha images in Bamiyan Valley, Afghanistan in 2001, the demolition of the sixteenth-century Babri Masjid in India’s Uttar Pradesh region in 1992, Saddam Hussein’s reconstruction of the neo-Babylonian structures at Babylon, and overlapping and undermining claims over the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem by different religious stakeholders are some of the case studies that we cover. All of these deeply historical sites are layered, complex sites of heritage that are sites of both remembering and conflict, where desires directed at specific episodes in their prolonged lives are mobilized for contemporary political action, and sometimes destruction and violence. 

Even though the conversion of Hagia Sophia, the sixth-century Byzantine Basilica on the historical peninsula of Istanbul, has been carried out in a supposedly legal framework and under the protection of the state, it seems to have very specific motivations behind it: an atavistic desire to reclaim a religious space as a symbol of reconquest, and the erasure or concealing of its particular iconographic and architectural features in order to make space for refreshed religious practice. This newly initiated practice in Hagia Sophia’s 1500-year-old space is fueled by anachronistic nostalgia and romanticism for a long-lost heritage. The ceremonial opening of the Hagia Sophia on July 24, 2020, involved specific historical re-enactments, such as the hyperbolic accompaniment of an Ottoman sword to the Friday khutbah, the appearance of costumed participants in the first prayers, a lavish yet archaic-looking door sign in Ottoman Turkish announcing the building as a “Grand Mosque.” The agency of “authentic” materials was used to re-activate and re-consecrate the space, while the powerful icons of the Byzantine past were concealed, their agency muted. In a way, what art historian Bissera Pentcheva and her colleagues called the “voice of Hagia Sophia” is silenced. 

Yet the romantic fanaticism and the neo-imperial Ottomanism of AKP should not be confused with the Ottoman treatment of Hagia Sophia, as Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycıoğlu correctly pointed out. The re-use of architectural spaces and materials (spolia) from the classical and medieval past in Seljuk and Ottoman buildings was common, emphasizing the genealogical link of those states to earlier political and cultural pasts. Contemporary Islamists, however, have little or no tolerance for Byzantine mosaics and such traces of the past.

In the context of the neoliberal AKP government, this radical gesture to convert one of the most sacred, deeply rooted spaces of the public sphere and historical consciousness in Middle East (comparable in this sense perhaps to the Dome of the Rock) is yet another gesture to undermine the institutions of early twentieth-century modernity: the museum and the concept of cultural heritage itself. This undermining has long been established in the two most recent decades with the sacrificing of historical landscapes to development projects, large-scale looting of archaeological sites, and relentless restoration projects that rebuild historic environments as new Las Vegas style money-making spaces. The conversion of Hagia Sophia comes at a time of widescale cultural heritage destruction in Turkey and the wider geography of the Middle East, and it must be understood precisely in the context of this broad program of disposal and expulsion of heritage sites from the public commons in the hands of neoliberal governments. 

In the end, what we have in our hands is an act of heritage injustice and spatial violence, due to the explicit closure of the building to at least part of its own genuine history: its mosaics, its marble floors, its “weeping column,” its reverberating sounds, its surfaces, the ongoing project of architectural conservation, the UNESCO-monitored management of the world heritage site, and so on. The conversion in this sense carries the abruptness of a political event or gesture that is motivated by the needs of the current political climate rather than bearing the fruit of a well-thought out process with consultation. 

I end this essay with a note on Hagia Sophia’s “weeping column”—a spoliated marble column (said to have come from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus) in the north isle of the basilica, covered with brass and bronze plates. About this holy place, Ethel Sara Wolper writes that “the pillar marked the spot where, among other things, visions of the Byzantine saint, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, occurred and the place where a body of a… Muslim saint [Khidr] was found.” According to the stories accumulated around the column over centuries, the column is associated with multiple Christian and Muslim saints and the perspiring water from its hole is believed to have healing qualities. Visitors and pilgrims who put their fingers into the hole make wishes for bright personal futures. I refer to this column to illustrate the truly holy and deeply historical character of the place with intimate material connections to a divine past, which is recognized by its pilgrims. I contrast this place and this practice with the contemporary AKP government’s destructive gesture of cleaning up historical spaces and giving these spaces a singular and purified meaning. In these purified spaces, only one story remains: the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

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