In the Wake of Hagia Sophia’s Reconversion into a Mosque

(Photo: Flickr/David Spender)

Calls to prayer were echoing from inside the Hagia Sophia this week after the famed Byzantine-era institution was formally reconverted and declared a mosque by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Originally constructed as a cathedral in the Byzantine Empire, the sixth-century monument was then turned into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople. Then, 86 years ago, it was transformed by the Turkish Republic into a museum and became a tourist magnet for millions of visitors a year.

The Republic of Armenia has expressed concern about the decision, particularly in light of the Hagia Sophia’s importance not only religiously, but also politically and culturally. Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Anna Naghdalyan says the decision will set a precedent for other religious and historic sites in Turkey, stating, “Granting a museum status to Hagia Sophia and inscribing it on the UNESCO World Heritage List symbolized cooperation and unity of humankind instead of clash of civilizations. Regrettably, the recent decision of the Turkish authorities brings to a close this important mission and symbolism of Hagia Sophia.”

UNESCO, for its part, has also expressed its displeasure with Turkey’s decision, specifically underscoring the lack of communication with authorities. A statement issued on July 10 highlights the now-compromised “universal value” of the site. According to the agency, the new ruling essentially betrayed the spirit of the World Heritage Committee, which is designed to approve changes of this nature after consulting with communities that have a stake in the unique preservation of this site.

Citing serious concerns about Turkey’s continuing anti-Armenian policies, the Armenian National Committee-International has also condemned what it calls a political move, writing in a July 15 statement that Erdogan’s decision “shows the real essence of the Turkish authorities.” ANC-International reiterated that the government once again is violating the rights of its religious and national minorities, as well as continuing its destructive efforts at destabilizing the region, and will be closely watched as the organization and its partners remain ready to respond with concrete action as necessary.

Maintaining the original sacred purpose of churches remains of utmost importance for political and religious advocates. “Holy sites – of any and all faiths – should be respected, preserved and operated as places of worship within the faith tradition in which they were built and consecrated,” said Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA) Executive Director Aram Hamparian. “Thousands of Christian churches, cemeteries and other religious properties across the territory of present-day Turkey – stolen or siezed through genocide – should be returned to their rightful owners and fully restored at state expense. That’s true for Hagia Sophia, for the Soorp Khatch Cathedral on Akhtamar, and for all places of worship.”

The ANCA is part of several cultural and political grassroots organizations including In Defense of Christians (IDC) and the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC) that has rejected Turkey’s claims to the region’s Christian heritage. These groups issued a joint statement on July 11 against Turkey’s proposal for the rights to the religious and cultural heritage of the region’s minority populations. Leaders wrote, “The overly broad, historically expansive, and arbitrary definitions of Turkish cultural heritage proposed by Ankara would effectively empower the Turkish state to continue utilizing violent and non-violent policy tools that are well documented by international heritage, legal and religious freedom experts, in order to destroy, appropriate and expropriate the religious heritage of the historic Christian populations, as well as more recently established Christian communities, the Jewish community, the Alevi community, and Kurdish and other Sunni ethnic minorities.”

The proposed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) entitled “Request by the Government of Turkey to the United States of America for Imposing Import Restrictions to Protect its Cultural Patrimony under Article 9 of the 1970 Convention,” is currently under consideration by the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, led by Assistant Secretary of State Marie Royce. 

A broad array of cultural organizations are on record opposing the MOU, among them the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). In its statement, the AAMD cites a 2016 Weekly article regarding destruction of Diyarbakir’s Armenian Catholic Church during clashes in the area as an example of the government’s blatant disregard for the historical significance of Christian churches in the country, as well as its violent seizure of the property.

During his announcement on Friday, Erdogan said formal prayers will be held inside the newly-decreed mosque on July 24. The Turkish government’s ruling, backed by a high court that revoked the 1934 decree, induced outrage among Orthodox Christians around the world. Pope Francis expressed his dismay during his sermon at St. Peter’s Basilica on Sunday. His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia also formally expressed his consternation in the following statement dated July 11, 2020.

First, the initiative of the President of Turkey ignores the symbolic meaning of the spiritual and cultural monuments, as well as international conventions, and distorts historical facts.

Second, prompted by its internal and external interests, as well as its international political ambitions, Turkey is ignoring the reactions of its old and new friends.

Third, Turkey’s present policy will destroy the confidence gained so far in Christian-Muslim cooperation and dialogue on local, regional and international levels. Turkey is ignoring such warnings.

Fourth, the current ruling reveals the cynicism and hypocrisy behind Turkey’s stated intention to open up to the West and Christian communities.

Fifth, I ask the political and religious leaders to remember that soon after the Armenian Genocide, Turkey confiscated thousands of Armenian Churches and transformed them into bars, coffee shops and public parks ignoring the reactions and appeals of the international community.

Yes, genocide continues by the same genocidal authorities in the full view of the world. 

The Turkish government’s continuing policy of expropriation, destruction and seizure of religious and cultural sites has caused worldwide distress. In his article entitled “Turkey’s Test of Civilization,” published in Ahval News on July 13, Dr. Taner Akçam calls on Turkish citizens to beware of this war on civilization. In this excerpt, Akçam states:

Basically, the whole Hagia Sophia affair can be summed up with the phrases “improper” or “a shame”…the deed that is being performed in regard to Hagia Sophia is a clear show of barbarism.

It is a declaration of a “Turkish lack of culture and destructiveness” to the entire world.  And the pairing of President and AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli is the political alliance through which this lack of culture and destructiveness has been made manifest. 

“But, why?” you may ask.

Because with this step, the world is being told, “Even though we live in the 21st century, our mentality is still that of 1453. Even now, in the 21st century, we are utterly unconcerned with preserving the cultural heritage of humanity. Among us, there’s no sense of a greater cultural inheritance beyond that which was left to us; we have nothing to contribute to humanity’s cultural treasures. We are unable to create any new cultural value ourselves. We seize the cultural treasures of humanity, we break them and/or we destroy them.”

This is what’s being done. Here, now, in the 21st century, the Hagia Sophia, one of the most significant monuments of human culture will again be “conquered” and turned into a mosque, just like in 1453.

What’s being performed here is an act of cultural vandalism.

The famous 19th century Russian thinker Nikolai Danilevski once divided human societies into “civilization creators” and “civilization destroyers”. He listed the ten greatest unique civilizations in chronological order: Egyptian, Chinese, Ancient Semitic (Assyrian, Babylon, Phonoecia, Chaldea), Indian, Persian, Grecian, Roman, neo-Semitic (Arab), and Germano-Roman (European) and had the following to say about them: “[B]eside these positive… civilizations there have also periodically appeared in the ages of humanity certain transitory actors like the Huns, Mongols, and Turks, whose candles have suddenly flared up and gone out, passing quickly into history. After completing their task of destruction, of assisting in the deaths of moribund civilizations and scattering their remains, they return to their previous insignificance and disappear. We may call them the negative actors of history.”

Just look at the state to which they have brought the country. Almost everyone who has attempted to speak out against the powers that be has been intimidated and suppressed, they’ve been jailed and imprisoned, and none of it has shown any sign of letting up.

There is no one left who hasn’t been cowed into silence, who hasn’t been crushed by the oppressive weight of the state. The cultural heritage that exists on these lands, and beyond that, nature itself, have both been dealt their share of this destruction.

The things that have been done—that are still being done, are the product of nothing less than the unrestrained exercise of power; of a ravenous appetite for destruction.

The geography of Anatolia today is one of destruction, of ruin; it is filled with thousands of churches and other holy places being used as stables or warehouses.  

Every Turk must therefore understand that opposing this axis is, at its core, the waging of a war for civilization.

The regime’s imprisonment of the wealthy philanthropist Osman Kavala, who as the founder of the Foundation for Anatolian Culture desires to preserve the cultural heritage and civilization of these lands, is perhaps the most poignant example of the struggle.

What is at stake here is nothing less than whether Turkey will stand the test of civilization.

In the end, civilization will triumph; but those who oppose it may not…

Despite worldwide criticism of his declaration, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan maintains that the decision made over 80 years ago to change the status of Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum was wrong. “We are rectifying a mistake. It’s as simple as that,” Erdogan said in a televised address, following a weekly Cabinet meeting. While Erdogan insists that the structure’s cultural heritage will be maintained, all Christian representations in Hagia Sophia will be covered during Muslim worship as Islamic tradition prohibits their presence.

The interior dome of the Hagia Sophia (Photo: Erik Torner)


  1. Your reasoning is wrong. Erdogan AKP party lost the Istanbul election and this is him personally rubbing the electorates nose in it as he hates them. All Turks are not RTE supporters and it is wrong to generalise.

  2. Can’t say I’m surprised under the circumstances. Erdogon has been focused on Turkey becoming more religious rather than secular. It’s just one more subtle step towards his goal. Concerns regarding the emphasis towards a more Muslim religious environment than secular has been a concern expressed by a lot of the population for some time. It’s unfortunate to be sure.

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