The Political Life of Monuments: Hagia Sophia One Month On

Over the course of its 1500-year history, the late Roman building known as the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), has served as the setting for many ceremonies, religious, political, and more often than not, a combination of the two. On July 24, Hagia Sophia served as a political theatre for a symbolic re-conquest of the building from the secularists who turned it into the Ayasofya müzesi (Hagia Sophia Museum) in 1934. For those who saw this ceremony as a form of erasure of the Byzantine past, it was quite the opposite. The polyvalence of the Roman building, synthesizing a Roman basilica, Byzantine church, Latin cathedral, Ottoman mosque, and museum, offered the perfect setting for the symbolic enactment, or re-enactment, of the Ottoman capture of the city. Imam Ali Erbaş made this explicit when he ascended Hagia Sophia’s Minbar with a sword and praised the 1453 conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet II. Although there was little ambiguity in the performance, there has been much discussion as to what the reversion is meant to accomplish, why a reversion ceremony was necessary (especially during a pandemic), and how this will affect Hagia Sophia’s future conservation.

The reversion of Hagia Sophia represents a major accomplishment of Erdoğan’s stridently anti-Kemalist political program of de-secularization that has included the reversion of several Byzantine buildings, and former Ottoman mosques, that were re-classed as museums in the 20th century. For example, in 2011 the Iznik Hagia Sophia, the site of the 787 CE Church council that addressed the first Iconoclast Controversy, was reverted to mosque. This move was followed by the Trabzon Hagia Sophia in 2013 whose wall and ceiling frescoes were covered with opaque material, and, most recently, the Chora Museum, whose mosaics have recently undergone a full restoration. Aside from concerns over the display and preservation of these buildings’ images, their structural integrity has not been seriously compromised, unlike the total destruction of sites like Sur and Hasankeyf, actions which have dispossessed and displaced numerous people.

Attempting the politics of religious nationalism in well-heeled Istanbul, a city that rejected Erdoğan’s AKP in the much contested 2019 mayoral election, carries far more political risk. The loss of Istanbul must have been acutely felt, since Erdoğan himself was elected its mayor in 1994. It was during his tenure as mayor that he re-introduced the celebration of the 1453 fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans on May 29. This initial experiment in populism, appealing to basic religious, national, and ethnic sentiment has only continued with the recent commemoration of the 1071 Battle of Manzikert. This politics of “mass distraction”, focus attention away from structural problems, like the increasingly dire economic situation, evidenced by the spiralling lira, and give the impression of social consensus and cohesion where they are lacking.

The framing of the reversion of Hagia Sophia, which was pushed through Turkey’s highest court earlier this summer, with little protest from opposition parties, insists on Turkish sovereignty. Erdoğan’s response to international criticism about the move has been to ask, “Are you ruling Turkey, or are we?” However, framing the reversion merely as a domestic and popular political manifestation, one opposed by western secularists and other political enemies, obscures Turkey’s international politics. The striking difference in Erdoğan’s English and Arabic statements on the reversion, highlight Turkey’s increasingly bellicose role in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Iraq and Syria, or in the scramble for influence and control of resources in Libya. The breadth of Turkey’s military adventures is less a result of a coherent political programme angling for a revival of the Ottoman Empire, and more a response to power vacuums, as well as generic opportunism. A promotional video released in anticipation of the July 24 prayer, shows a pan-Islamic consensus for the act, focusing on specific groups of the former Ottoman world, such as Bosnia; groups of Turkic ethnicity, such as Kyrgyzstan; and current allies, such as Azerbaijan. Thus, Erdoğan’s purely domestic matter easily becomes a conduit for geopolitical manoeuvring, one in which all bases, even those with the flimsiest of pretexts, are covered.

Photo courtesy of the author
Photo courtesy of the author

Nowhere is the above discursive trap more evident than in the rhetoric of popular consensus and the reestablishment of worship after an 86-year hiatus, one enforced by a secular, western-facing elite that contravened popular will throughout the early 20th century. These assertions serve to obscure the fact that a part of Hagia Sophia had been reserved exclusively for Muslim worship since 1991, and that a permanent imam was assigned to Hagia Sophia in 2016. Just as the current regime reproaches Atatürk for having made the unilateral decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a museum; likewise, the latest transformation of Hagia Sophia’s status took place without anything approaching a public consultation, whether by plebiscite or referendum. For all of his talk of the popular will, Erdoğan avoided all consultation with the wider citizenry, and, when questioned about this oversight, presented the matter as a formality, a purely legal question.

In Erdoğan’s English-language statement and in his speeches, the reversion of Hagia Sophia was presented as a victory of the Turkish nation (Türk Milleti) in an emancipatory, almost postcolonial, struggle. In the present narrative, the forbearance of the “Turkish nation” finds recompense in the re-appropriation of cultural heritage. Understanding the issue in these terms means accepting that there is a discrete entity known as the “Turkish nation” with a unity of religious and cultural purpose. But who is part of Erdoğan’s “Turkish nation”? Does it include Turkey’s numerous minority groups, including Kurds, Assyrians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Romani peoples, all of whom are part of the Turkish citizenry? And beyond ethnico-religious communities, does Erdoğan’s “Turkish nation” include the many communities organized around shared political commitments, including emancipatory struggles, such as LGBTQ+ rights? Finally, does the “Turkish nation” include the women and women’s groups who have been organizing and protesting the Turkish government’s anticipated withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention — a treaty organizing international cooperation against antifeminist violence, ranging from marital rape to FGM —, which was ratified by the Turkish government in 2012? In Turkey, as in the UK (which never ratified the Istanbul Convention), the recent lockdown has seen gendered violence increase. The week leading up to the July 24 prayer at Hagia Sophia witnessed a series of spontaneous protests resulting from the inadequate government response to violence against women, especially following the murder of university student Pinar Gültekin by a former partner. So, just like most evocations of popular unity, this one quickly unravels, revealing the absence of collective forms of decision-making, and the rhetorical assimilation of a loyal electoral base with the wider population.

To some extent, articles voicing concern about the conservation of the buildings and its artistic treasures have overlooked the parochial interests governing this decision, pointing to the Turkish government’s reneging on its commitment to a UNESCO world heritage site as the height of depravity. This point was easily picked up by Erdoğan’s media team who queried why an Islamic house of worship could not also function as world heritage, especially when the building had already served as one for almost 500 years. Much of the impetus for this statement came from expressions of concern about what would happen to the building’s (middle and late Byzantine) mosaics, and whether and how these would be covered during prayer times and beyond. The controversy about the mosaics was centred on the orientalist trope of Islamic iconoclasm — really, aniconism — even though we know that during the Ottoman period the mosaics of Hagia Sophia and the Chora Museum were sometimes on display. However, for the July 24 prayer, the apse mosaic depicting the Mother of God with the Christ child was loosely covered with white cloths held in place with anchored ropes and pulleys—a lucklustre and unnecessarily invasive solution. For now, we can still only speculate about the future covering/display of Hagia Sophia’s figural mosaics. Of course, the point here is that Hagia Sophia (as other multilayered monuments) should be view diachronically, across its layered history, as it is this relationship of histories that makes the building so compelling. And modern visitors who tour the building, out of curiosity or out of religious commitment, join the long history of travellers, who include medieval Arab travellers and diplomats or pilgrims from medieval Russia. Even the Byzantines used the building as a space for displaying their antiquities, such as imperial crowns. Thus, a cumulative view of human interaction with Hagia Sophia and its treasures shows that, official status or not, it will continue to function as a museum and, very likely, survive the current regime. However, the current outlook for Turkish society and the targets of the Turkish government’s expansionist policies, is much less optimistic.


All photos courtesy of the author 


Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Alexandra Vukovich

Alexandra Vukovich is a British Academy research fellow at the University of Oxford where she works on Byzantine and Eurasian history. She has been working on travellers and travel accounts to Constantinople in the Byzantine and early Ottoman periods.