The Hagia Sophia or the Great Mosque of Ayasophia?

Published March 02, 2021 by Dunya Habash

Dunya Habash reflects on her recent visit to the Hagia Sophia after its conversion back to a mosque on 10 July 2020.

When I first heard that the Hagia Sophia was being restored to a mosque, I knew that this was a significant global event. I knew I had to write about it. But I did not know it would take me a few months to figure out how. After the Turkish Court of Justice revoked Ataturk's decree that converted the Mosque of Ayasophia into a national museum in 1932, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan affirmed this historic decision on 10 July 2020 in a live television address: "Hagia Sophia, the common heritage of humanity, will go forward to embrace everyone with its new status in a much more sincere and much more unique way." The court decision has been several years in the making, beginning with a campaign by a cultural association that made a legal application to restore the Hagia Sophia, along with a number of monuments, including several Byzantine churches, as mosques. The Hagia Sophia was the fourth Byzantine church museum to be restored as a mosque under President Erdogan, but by far the most significant one (Gall 10 July 2020).

Naturally, this decision spurred a variety of reactions. The idea of converting the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque prompted immediate pushback from Greece, which sees itself as the heir to the Byzantine Empire. The Greek Foreign Ministry denounced the conversion as unacceptable and a breach of the Hagia Sophia's status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Lina Mendoni, the Greek culture minister, condemned Turkey's decision as a "direct challenge to the entire civilised world", adding that Mr Erdogan's nationalism had pushed the country back six centuries. In a related statement, UNESCO said it "deeply regrets" that the decision was made without any prior discussion, adding: "Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue." Warning that altering physical structures or changing accessibility to the site could violate the 1972 World Heritage Convention, to which Turkey was a signatory.

I was still in the UK when I found out about the conversion, but only a few months before my move to Istanbul where I would spend the next academic year conducting fieldwork for my PhD research. I started noting reactions from people in Cambridge about the Hagia Sophia, but encountered even stronger reactions when I moved to Turkey in September. Below is a representative list of some of the statements and opinions I have collected and researched in an attempt to understand my own conflicted feelings:

  1. "This is a sad political move by Erdogan that destroys multicultural and interfaith relations in Turkey and the wider Middle East." (British anthropologist of the Middle East)
  2. "Converting the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque is completely unnecessary. People around the world, especially in the West, have PTSD from Islam. We should be trying to correct our image with a bit more maturity. Erdogan's move is simply child's play." (Muslim American medical resident)
  3. "Islam deserves some respect; they turned mosques into bars in Israel and the Mesquita into a church in Spain. Why can't we play by their own rules?" (Muslim physician living in USA for the last 30 years)
  4. "I like that it has been converted back into a sacred space for prayer. Worship was the original intention of the building, albeit Christian but most recently Muslim, and it should stay a prayerful space. As a museum, it loses that sacredness." (British Muslim graduate student)
  5. "As a Muslim woman, I don't feel comfortable praying here because it feels too much like a church. Look there are crosses everywhere. Not the same inviting spirit of a masjid. And, it's not like Istanbul is lacking in masjids. They are everywhere and the Blue Mosque is literally across the street. It just doesn't make any sense. This space is clearly a church and Christians have been praying in it for centuries. The layout, the architecture, the feeling...I don't feel the feeling I feel when I enter a masjid." (Syrian university student in Istanbul)
  6. "We should not care what the West will say, it’s our history and our monument." Huseyin Gulerce, a pro-government columnist for the Star newspaper reprinted a column he had written 30 years ago in which he had criticised the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum as an unnecessary gesture of deference to the West that cast a "dark shadow" over Turkish independence. "We want back what was cut off from our history, faith, culture, national dignity, state honor," wrote Mr Gulerce. "The hesitations of 'But what would the United States, the West say?' should be removed over this country," he wrote then. "If you open Hagia Sophia you would make our dignified nation happy."
  7. "When the Aya Sophia was opened again [as a mosque], we said that this is a light that shines for the entire [Muslim] ummah. I say with all honesty, Aya Sophia is not just a building. Aya Sophia is also Jerusalem, it is Mecca and Medina, too." Granddaughter of Sultan Abdul Hamid II speaking to Al-Jazeera about her visit to HS.
  8. "When I first heard that Hagia Sophia was re-dedicated as a mosque, I immediately thought of the lovely and large Blue Mosque right across the plaza. It seemed to me that the re-dedication had much less to do with the religious needs of Muslims in Istanbul than with politics. As such, it greatly diminishes the significance of Hagia Sophia as a World Heritage site; in fact, I think it diminishes the city's - even Turkey's - overall architectural and artistic heritage. To me, as a Christian with a genuine appreciation of the region's religious and cultural history, this short-sighted move is disappointing and saddening. I'm saddened not over the loss of Hagia Sophia as a museum, per se, but as a threshold of interfaith respect and understanding." (American professor of medieval literature)

My discussions over the months made a complicated matter even more complicated. As a practicing Muslim, I was caught between the impulse to celebrate the restoration of the Great Mosque of Ayasophia, as some of my friends and family were around the world, and regretting the loss of a historical nexus of dialogue between Islam and Christianity, East and West. A recent visit to the site further complicated my feelings. Although relieved to see that most of the Byzantine relics and mosaics had remained intact as Erdogan had promised (key pieces like the Virgin and Child in the center of the former sanctuary are covered by two sail-like draperies), the experience was definitely a different one from my previous visit in 2018.

Half of the responses are emotional responses to a political event; they say little about the use of sacred space. They say more about perceived injustices of the past being made right in a political present. This allows me to question how we can respond in a way not overly emotional to a political situation, whether it is the Islamisation of Turkey or the usurping of common cultural space for political manoeuvring. It was a space in which Christians, Muslims and Greeks could celebrate their religious and historical heritage jointly. However, from the emotional responses I have gathered, we can see that many Muslims feel disrespected in today's world, a world that reminds them constantly of their persecution whether through the Israeli occupation, racism and Islamaphobia in the West, and genocide and internment camps in places like China, Myanmar and India. For this reason, taking back the Hagia Sophia can feel like a victory for the Muslim world.

At first, I thought it was hard to write about this because of so many different responses to the restoration of this historic building as a mosque. Ultimately, it was difficult because it deals with emotional responses to an event overshadowed by politics. The status of the Hagia Sophia cannot be separated from a larger context of political and social complexities. Many of the comments I heard stem from a sense of retributive justice, asserting a religious self-esteem. Recognising that unanimity of response is not going to be found apart from a common perspective, where do I as a Muslim woman turn? My obvious response is to turn to the teachings of the Prophet for guidance. In spite of practices of Jews, Christians and Muslims over centuries of interaction, the Prophet Mohammad insisted that no religious shrine that venerated the name of God be usurped. This is simply not the way of the Prophet.

This article is written by Dunya Habash, a Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship awardee, having commenced her PhD studies in Music in 2019.

Back to Blog