Turkey | Mosque and State

A debate over the future of the Hagia Sophia highlights deep divisions ahead of polls

01 April 2014
The Hagia Sophia, built as a church in 537 CE, was a mosque under Ottoman rule after 1453. It became a museum after the founding of modern Turkey.
BULENT KILIC / AFP / Getty Images

ON A CHILLY MORNING IN LATE JANUARY, in Istanbul’s bustling Sultanahmet area, Selahattin Akgul, a heavily moustached shoeshine man who works just outside the Hagia Sophia, contemplated the fate of the sixth-century monument. The building, a former mosque that is now a museum, attracts over three million tourists a year. “Everybody wants Hagia Sophia to go back to being a mosque,” Akgul said. “It will be much more beautiful that way, and people won’t have to pay to enter it.” Before him stretched a long line of international tourists, who had each paid an entrance fee of 25 Turkish lira ($11.5).

Akgul is not alone in holding this view. In November, Turkish deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, of the ruling centre-right Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP), caused a furore when, at the opening of a new museum in Sultanahmet, he spoke about the “Hagia Sophia Mosque.” “We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia,” Arınç said, “but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.” Arınç also expressed approval for the reconversion in recent years of two other former Byzantine churches elsewhere in Turkey—both also called Hagia Sophias—from museums into mosques.

The status of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia has been a point of religious and political contention throughout Turkey’s history; the building is a key national symbol, and its fate has closely mirrored the preferences of changing ruling elites. The Hagia Sophia was built as an Orthodox Christian cathedral in the sixth century CE, and immediately became the centrepiece of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, as Istanbul was then known. In 1453, the Ottoman emperor Mehmud II converted the cathedral into a mosque after he captured the city and made it his capital. Then, in 1935, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, issued a decree converting the mosque into a museum as part of his campaign to secularise the country. The building’s status has come up for public debate on several occasions since, though reconversion never seemed a serious possibility until recently. A bill currently pending in the Turkish parliament, introduced by the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party, has challenged the legality of Ataturk’s 1935 order on the grounds that it was never published in the official state gazette, as required by the constitution of all decrees.

KAVITHA RAO is a freelance journalist based in Bangalore and Istanbul. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The National, the New York Times, and other publications. Her website is www.kavitharao.net.

Keywords: corruption European Union Istanbul Turkey secularism monument Reycep Tayyip Erdoğan