Social Science

Hagia Sophia hara-kiri: The Royal Turkish mess!

Shahzeb Ahmed
Final Year Law Student at Llyod Law College

The world is going through extremely difficult and different times due to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19. Almost the entire world is currently under lockdown, while all of us are getting used to the streaming platforms and binge-watching. As our favourite pastime. On the other day, I was having a conversation with my mother and got to know about a show she is glued to these days, called Resurrection Ertugrul (Dirilis: Ertugrul). Primarily, based on Turkish mythology, the show panoramically portrays the glorious days of the Ottoman empire and how glorious their past was. This show has the same impact in Turkey as Mahabharat and Ramayana had on the Indian socio-political context. In recent times however, there is an ideological shift in Turkey from being secular to more orthodox. Justice and Development Party (AKP) has now embarked upon a motive of Islamisation of the entire nation. The party, while coming to power, had promised a prosperous future. Largely failing on these promises, they are using a fascist formula of ‘I might not give you the promised future, so let me restore to you the glorious past’. Erdogan primarily is reversing 100 years of reforms in Turkey, restoring it to the Ottoman Islamic past. Their latest move towards this transformation can be seen by converting the UNESCO designated heritage site Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Let me try to briefly explain the history, foundation, and future impact of the decision on the present and future of Turkey. 

On the 10th of July 2020, the highest court of Turkey allowed the conversion of the 1500-year-old Hagia-Sophia from the museum into a mosque. This directly contradicts the vision of the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This UNESCO world heritage site has a long history dating back to the 6th century. The monument was built at Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in the 6th century CE (532-537) under the guidance of the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Post Turkish conquest of Constantinople in the year 1453, Mehmed II had it turned into a mosque. As mentioned earlier, by the late 19th Century, largely the educated Turks started to get influenced by Europe. This resulted in popular demand for modernization throughout the country by the end of the 1880s. In 1920, the Treaty of Sevres finally ended the conservative Ottoman rule from Turkey.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the president of Turkey in the year 1923 thereafter he modernized the country’s legal and education system. In 1924 he abolished the rule of Caliphate. In a book named ‘The J Curve by Ian Bremmer’ quotes Ataturk saying “Think of two men facing you, one is rich and has every means at his disposal and the second is poor and has nothing apart from the absence of means, the spirit of the second man is in no way different or inferior to the first one, that is precisely position of Turkey as it faces Europe”. Ataturk always wanted Turkey to be a part of Europe and break from the religious past that was holding the country for long. In that sense, Ataturk was rather a benevolent dictate rather than being an authoritarian dictate. Thereafter, Turkey became a secular country by diktat rather than being a voluntary secular through the constitution. In the year 1934, he secularized the Hagia Sophia and turned it into a museum. Ataturk always thought that this was an unnecessary symbol of past and religiosity. Therefore, though the site is best suited as a symbol of cultural heritage.

Ataturk left behind an ideology called Kemalist which basically a mix of modernity, secularity, and westernism. The protector of this ideology is the Turkish army. It has been taking various measures to protect this ideology from time to time. However, it is interesting to note that Turkey witnessed 4 coups since 1998, every time army has tried to uplift the idea of Kemalist.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who originally belonged to Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into power in the year 2003. He continued for some term and eventually got elected as President in the year 2014. In 2015 he lost his parliamentary majority but still maneuvered the system in such a way that another election took place within that year. In 2016, the army tried to coup again but they failed. Erdogan had a referendum that abolished Prime Ministership in the country and assumed all the powers himself as the President.

The elected President turned Dictator of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently decreed 

Hagia Sophia site to be reverted into a mosque. Erdogan’s move naturally attracted huge international criticism from different countries such as the United States, Greece, and international bodies like UNESCO. This move can have a lasting impact on the relationship with Greece. 

After the verdict, Greece’s Minister for Culture, Lina Mendoni remarked that the ruling “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey and said the move was an “open provocation to the civilized world”. “The nationalism displayed by President Erdogan…. Takes his country back six centuries,” Mendoni added. 

The US State Department has bludgeoned this move as “disappointing”. They indicated that it would observe Turkey’s plans for the Hagia Sophia “to ensure it remains accessible without impediment for all.”

Pope Francis has said that he is “pained” by the decision of the Turkey court to convert Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. While speaking at a service in the Vatican he said “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained”. This would lead to a bigger rift with western and European countries having a majority of the Christian population.

Overall, the decision to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has not gone well with the Western allies of Turkey. Erdogan has advanced his ties with Russia and to solidify the new friendship both nations have signed a defence deal. This move has additionally irked the USA and  NATO. Interestingly the decision to convert Hagia Sophia sparked anger in Russia and this would lead to greater problems between the two nations given that they already have differences over Syria and Libya. Russian officials have remarked that the conversion of the monument is “an unacceptable violation of religious freedom”. 

Erdogan made this a property of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affair. In his speech, while addressing the Muslim population, he said “the resurrection of the Hagia Sophia takes the chain of its doors and shackles of the hearts and the feet of those who stand alongside it”. This was rather done to please the orthodox Muslims, who are the major vote bank of Erdogan. 

A poll conducted in June by Istanbul Economy Research showed 46.9% of respondents favoured Hagia Sophia being opened to Muslim worship while 38.8% said it should remain a museum. 13% said it should be open to worship for all religions. Turkey having 99.8% population being Muslim and out of that 51% of the population having a rather different view from the governments’ move, clearly shows the values of secularism are largely still embedded within the Turkish societal values.

Most researchers believe that Erdogan has systematically eroded the secular ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on which the modern Turkish Republic was founded. President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s dominance over Turkey’s political sphere for close to two decades has slowly pushed it from a constitutionally secular country to a more conservative nation on religious lines. On the surface, AKP has claimed to be secular but as witnessed in the case of Hagia Sophia, it appears that the party will not hesitate to alter Ataturk’s secular legacy to achieve its own political goals. 

The conversion of the Hagia Sophia is going to be a significant milestone in the international political rhetoric for Turkey. It seems that Turkey has already ruined its alliance with the US and most European nations. The only ally which Turkey was relying on is Russia, which is also showing displeasure at this decision.

Finally, in my opinion, what worked for the Ottomans cannot work for modern Turkey today. There is an interlinkage of different aspects such as history, heritage, culture, which explains symbols of each nation- and nations must uplift them rather than suppressing them. Turkey, by choosing to let go of its ties with secularism and Kemalist approach by portraying the glorified past will make it difficult for them to sustain and develop. It is time for Erdogan to retrospect and revert to the Kemalist approach as an effort to regain support from the international community. These are difficult times ahead, and the last thing one can do is to lose ‘true’ friends now!

Cite this article as: Shahzeb Ahmed, "Hagia Sophia hara-kiri: The Royal Turkish mess!," in THE QUEST Sociolegal Review, August 19, 2020,

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