Fouad Alasiri, Urban Planning Consultant
The structure and integrity of world heritage sites should be unequivocally protected. This includes not only physically protecting these buildings by keeping the original architecture, style and building materials intact, but also keeping the site’s original function and name. However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent threat to convert the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque has crossed a red line and sets a dangerous precedent in place.
If radical groups see governments disregarding and destroying heritage sites, they could view that as a green light to target other heritage sites. Therefore, UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has an important responsibility to ensure that these World Heritage Sites are protected.
Islam’s History of Preservation
Between the 8th and 14th centuries — the Islamic Golden Age — most, if not all, religious sites were protected in places like Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Persia, Iberia etc. To be sure, Islamic leaders and sultans during this era did commit horrible crimes while expanding their political territories — no different than the leaders of European nations and empires. Despite this, religious and cultural sites were largely preserved and protected. The reasons for preserving these sites could have ranged from improving the new ruler’s image, to taking advantage of the local people’s skills and knowledge or could be based on moral reasons.
The Age of Cultural Destruction
This protection ended in 1453, when the Ottoman Empire seized and occupied Constantinople from the Byzantine Empire. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror — also known as Mohammed II — ordered the Hagia Sophia to be converted from an Eastern Orthodox church to a mosque. During its conversion, many mosaics depicting Jesus, angels and Christian saints were destroyed or covered up by new Islamic artwork. Conversely, its important to note that during this time period Muslim heritage sites were also being erased by Christians. When Muslims lost control of Iberia in 1492, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Fernando of Aragon, converted many mosques to churches.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the 20th century, a collective shift in mindset took place where the destruction of heritage sites was largely viewed as a crime against humanity. In 1935, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk — the father of the modern Turkish state — ordered the Hagia Sophia to be converted from a mosque to a museum.
In May 2014, tens of thousands of Turkish worshippers gathered to ask the government to convert Hagia Sophia back to a mosque — just days before Erdogan began his presidential campaign. In response, he instructed officials to conduct a study to find another use for the Hagia Sophia. The move was widely condemned by critics. Many Greek officials condemned the move as infringing on their religious and national sentiments. Others viewed Erdogan’s decision as a political move against Greece or an attempt to expand his Islamist electoral base.
In June 2018, Erdogan won a new five-year presidential term. It granted him sweeping new presidential powers, won in a controversial referendum in 2017 and in March 2019 Erdogan explicitly called for the conversion of Hagia Sophia back into a mosque. Critics decried the move, pointing out that there was no mosque shortage in Istanbul. In fact, the Sultan Ahmet mosque — which directly faces Hagia Sophia — can host 10,000 worshippers and the nearby Suleymaniye mosque can accommodate a whopping 20,000 worshippers and is rarely ever completely filled.
In response to Erdogan’s declaration, the Hellenic American Leadership Council, the Armenian National Committee of America and In Defence of Christians all sent letters to UNESCO, demanding that it acts to protect Hagia Sophia. In addition, they have launched a social media campaign to highlight the importance of the issue.
Historically, heritage sites were destroyed in order to weaken political opponents. For example, in 1944 the US army bombed a historical site founded in 529 by Benedict of Nursia in Montecasino because they thought German troops may use it. It is clear that Erdogan is doing the same thing. He is using the Hagia Sophia as leverage against his domestic and foreign political opponents.
The Dangers of Neo-Ottomanism
In a report published by the Middle East Institute, researchers Marwa Maziad and Jake Sotiriadis talk about the Neo-Ottoman movement in Turkey which places a high emphasis on nationalism and political Islam building upon the Ottoman Empire legacy through the expansion of military, economic and political power. When looking at Turkey’s behavior in the region today, it is clear that it is implementing this Neo-Ottoman strategy as it moves to expand its influence in countries like Qatar, Somalia, Libya and Syria.
By pursuing this strategy, Turkey has managed to anger the US, Europe, Russia, Egypt and the GCC. With each passing year, Turkey has drifted further from diplomacy and closer towards the use of force to achieve its goals. An example of this is Turkey’s forays in the Mediterranean Sea. Instead of calling for negotiations with Cyprus upon the discovery of natural gas in Mediterranean waters, it has provocatively boosted is naval presence there.
While Erdogan has pointed fingers at Greece, saying there is not one standing mosque in Athens, this is no excuse for converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque. It is simply a way for Erdogan to deflect media scrutiny by comparing the number of mosques in Athens to the number of churches in Istanbul. Allowing Erdogan to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque will surely please radical jihadists and embolden them to target other non-Islamic heritage sites in the region.
Not only should the Hagia Sophia not be turned into a mosque, but there is a legitimate argument that it should be converted back into a church and a museum. By doing this, Turkey could not only correct the Ottoman Empire’s historical mistake, but also defuse growing regional tensions.
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