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The enduring fight for the Hagia Sophia

Transforming the 1,500-year-old cathedral into a museum in the Thirties solved centuries of religious tension. Erdogan’s plan to reopen it for Muslim prayer shows the fight to preserve the Hagia Sophia is about far more than just a building, writes Kevin Childs

Thursday 23 July 2020 11:49 BST
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From today, the cathedral is open for Muslim worship
From today, the cathedral is open for Muslim worship (Getty)

Approaching Istanbul by boat from one of the ferry docking stations on the Asian side of the Bosporus or the Sea of Marmara, the scene before you is dominated by the vast but elegant pile of buttresses, apses and great dome of Hagia Sophia. It’s a sight that will have thrilled travellers for many centuries. To step inside is to enter the “artifice of eternity”, as Yeats put it in his poem “Sailing to Byzantium”; one of those rare accomplishments of human endeavour that matches the natural world. After almost a century of being a secular museum, on 10 July the Turkish Council of State, Turkey’s top court, ruled that the museum of Hagia Sophia can be redesignated as a mosque.

Turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque is a project that has been close to the heart of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In May of this year, he ostentatiously attended prayers in the ancient building to commemorate the conquest of the old Byzantine capital of Constantinople by the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II in 1453. The conquest led to the conversion of what was then the most important church of Orthodox Christianity, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, as Hagia Sophia means, into the principal mosque of the Ottoman empire.

The conquest of Constantinople was explicitly mentioned in the decision of the Council of State. Using baffling reasoning, the court held that Constantinople’s conquest enshrined Mehmed’s “right” of ownership over Hagia Sophia and this was proof that it should be and always was a mosque. According to this schoolboy logic, any subsequent decisions by subsequent governments cannot, it seems, overturn this apparent “truth” which flowed from Constantinople’s fall and the demise of the Byzantine empire.

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