Hagia Sophia: History, Politics and Religion

Commissioned for the first time by Byzantine emperor Constantius, in 360 A.D., Hagia Sophia was built with woods. It was soon burned to the grounds in riots. Theodosius built its second version in 415 A.D. with a marble structure. But it was again razed to the ground in 532 A.D.

The current marvel structure was ordered by emperor Justinian, whose desire was to build the greatest church of all times. It is situated along the Bosphorus. Hagia Sophia remained as world’s largest Cathedral for nearly a thousand years. It was the seat of Orthodox patriarch of Roman empire’s eastern capital Constantinople. But again it was destined to another conquest.

The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed, conquered Constantinople in 1453 A.D. Instead of demolishing, the church was converted into a mosque maintaining its old name. The Christian mosaics, including pictures of the Christ, virgin Marry, were covered with plasters. Islamic minarets and a mihrab was added. But there was no escaping the fate, this conversion was superficial.

In 1931, the founder of the Byzantine Institute of America, Thomas Whittemore, traveled to Istanbul. He got the permission of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, to oversee the conversion of this mosque into a museum. But officially this conversion was ordered by Ataturk along his ministers in 1935, imposing a ban on prayers inside it. The Byzantine mosaics were uncovered again!

This majestic structure is one of UNESCO’s world heritage sites. In the recent years, there have been calls to reconvert this eclectic museum back into mosque. Turkish public was demanding it to honor the Islamic history and legacy of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed. It was endorsed by Erdogan at an election rally last year. A hearing was held on July 2, 2020, deciding the fate of Ayasofya( in Turkish), whether it should remain a museum where prayers are not allowed or it should be given back the status of a mosque.

Court decreed in favor of the conversion, along with sustaining it being open for the visitors. But a harsh response came from the international community, deeming this decision as dismissing thousands of years of history. This is a provocation against civilization. Washington and Moscow both warned Ankara against conversion. Russian Orthodox Church and UNESCO were also on the same pages. Secular class also opposes the decree of the court.

Hagia Sophia was a place of Muslim Christian solidarity. But its conversion could rift up the society. Christians have their historical attachment to this place and being as a mosque.

On the other hand, Tayyip Erdogan declared it as Turkey’s internal matter. The world has nothing to do with it. Turkey is ensuring its national sovereignty. Turks are but commemorating their successful past. Government had to abide by the public opinion. Majority of the Turks were hoping for this conversion. Along with it, It’s the order of the court which the government must execute. To Erdogan, it’s not an act of narrow-mindedness as Sancta Sophia ( in Latin) will remain open for all visitors. He had many times declared that there are several hundreds of safe places for the minority worshippers. According to him, the conversion will erase nothing from the pages of history.

But it was just one side of the coin. Many critiques argued that Erdogan’s own political figure was declining among public. The economy of the country has been hit hard by the Pandemic. Opponents and many analysts accused Erdogan of deception as his best Modus Operandi. So, in order to divert people attention, a drama serial named as Dirillis Ertugrul was started off through his helping and kind hands. It had proved, amazingly, a far better tool of propaganda for Erdogan. It had really instigated nationalistic and religious sentiments of Turks

. In order to regain support among the masses, he had sparked off this issue, for which he had already leveled the field. Majority of his vote bank is comprised of religious and nationalist classes. And this issue has really proved as great for gaining support. This decision has been warmly welcomed by his supporters. But this support is short-term. International response might be quite hard.

On 24th of July, a “Friday Prayer” is going to be observed. What would happen to the mosaics?, what sort of treatment would the visitors experience? What would really happen in the coming future, it’s a big question which I am leaving for your own follow up.

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