World Heritage

From Museum To Mosque?

Turkey's conservative government is stepping up its calls to turn the Hagia Sophia into a functioning mosque—but Christians worry the conversion will obsure the famous landmark's Byzantine history.

12.15.13 10:45 AM ET

ISTANBUL—Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, one of the most famous landmarks in the world and a powerful religious symbol for both Christians and Muslims, will be turned into a mosque if Turkey’s Islamic-conservative government has its way.

Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc recently threw his weight behind calls to convert the building from its present status as a museum into a mosque, and a right-wing opposition party in Ankara has tabled a bill in parliament calling for the conversion.

Built in the 6th century, the Hagia Sophia was the most important church of the Byzantine Empire for almost a millennium before the Muslim Ottomans turned it into a mosque after their 1453 conquest of Constantinople, as Istanbul was then called.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the founder of modern Turkey’s secular republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, declared the Hagia Sophia a museum open to visitors of all faiths in 1935. A UNESCO world heritage site since 1985, the majestic building draws close to than 3.3 million visitors annually and is one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions.

The Hagia Sophia reflects both its Christian and Muslim traditions. Circular wooden frames bearing the names of Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, his two grandchildren and of the first four caliphs adorn columns under the main dome, close to a Christian mosaic depicting the Virgin and the Child in the apse of the former basilica.

But Deputy PM Arinc says he wants the Hagia Sophia to be a mosque again. “We look upon this poor Hagia Sophia today,” he said during a speech near the building last month. “We pray that she may smile again very soon.”

Arinc reminded his audience of two other former Byzantine churches named Hagia Sophia, one in Iznik south-east of Istanbul and one in Trabzon on Turkey’s north-eastern Black Sea coast, whose conversion from museums into mosques he oversaw in recent years.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has roots in political Islam, is frequently accused by critics of trying to force its Islamic values on society. The government encourages the building of new mosques. Turkey currently has close to 85,000 mosques, around 10,000 of which were built since the AKP came to power in 2002. A huge mosque is currently being constructed on the highest hill overlooking Istanbul.

But there have been no efforts to take working churches away from Christian communities and turn them into mosques. In 2011, the government ordered the return of property confiscated decades ago to the dwindling Christian and Jewish communities in Turkey, which number less than 200,000 people in a country of 75 million.

In his speech outside the Hagia Sophia, Arinc said representatives of non-Muslim faith groups in Turkey had told him they would respect a decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, the office of Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, has not commented on the issue.

Arinc can be confident that the government in Ankara, and possibly a majority in parliament, stands behind his initiative of transforming former churches into mosques. According to local media reports, Emine Erdogan, the wife of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prayed in the former Hagia Sophia in Trabzon during a visit there three weeks ago.

In Ankara, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) presented a draft law to parliament that could serve as a legal framework for the conversion of the Istanbul Hagia Sophia. The bill, sponsored by deputy Yusuf Halacoglu, argues that the 1930s cabinet decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a museum was never published in Turkey’s official gazette and was therefore null and void. No date has been set for a vote on the bill.

Government officials have not said how they intend to combine the Christian heritage of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia with the religious demands of a mosque. In Trabzon, Byzantine mosaics are hidden behind curtains at prayer times, in line with Islam’s ban on pictures of humans and animals. But given the size and the placement of mosaics high over the ground in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, curtains would hardly be a solution there.

A conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque would have international implications. The government of Greece, Turkey’s Christian neighbour, has already reminded Ankara that Byzantine churches were part of the world’s cultural and religious heritage. Turkey responded by pointing out that there was not a single working mosque in Athens and said Ankara did not need lessons in religious freedom issues by Greece.

Turkey has also been asked to explain the Hagia Sophia to UNESCO, the UN’s cultural organization.

“UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre has asked Turkey to provide more information about plans for Hagia Sophia,” spokesman Roni Amelan said in an email this week. “We are waiting for the response and cannot comment before we know more.”

But in Turkey itself, international considerations seem remote for many. The Association of Anatolian Youth, a nationalist youth organisation, said earlier this year it had collected just under 15 million signatures supporting the conversion of the Istanbul Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Although not independently verifiable, the figure could suggest that Arinc’s plan may pay off for Erdogan’s AKP in local elections scheduled for March 30.

Several Turks interviewed on the square in front of the Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul recently also expressed support for the conversion.

“If there was a referendum, 85 percent of people would vote for it to become a mosque,” said Murat Ozturk, a 29-year-old civil servant. “For Turks, this is a symbol,” he added. “Of course it should be a mosque,” said another man on the square.

Turkish historian Mehmet Celik told a television interviewer that the Hagia Sophia was a cornerstone for Turkey’s national identity as a country born by expelling foreign occupying powers after World War I, when British and French troops ruled Istanbul.

“The Turkish nation still feels led and controlled by the West,” he said. “Only when the Hagia Sophia is a mosque again, it will feel truly sovereign.”

But Ayse Hur, another historian, said Turkey should accept once and for all that the Hagia Sophia was part of Christian, and not of Islamic, culture.

“With its architecture, its history and its legends, the Hagia Sophia is an edifice of Christian culture,” she told Turkish television. Addressing the Muslim majority in Turkey, she added: “You conquered this structure and you prayed there as Muslims for centuries, but that does not change the fact that this is a Christian building with some minarets tacked on.”

A minority of Turks interviewed on the square in front of Hagia Sophia agreed with Hur. “As Muslims, we want it to be a mosque, but we also have to think of the foreigners and their rights,” said Asim Gur, a pensioner. “It is a highly symbolic place, built as a church. One should not mess with that.”