Hagia Sophia and the conquest of history

Grace Gardiner | Europe and Eurasia Fellow

The more things change, the more they stay the same. It seems that for Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, the more it stays the same, the more things change around it. Its great blue domes and Byzantine gold have been the heart of Istanbul for close to 1500 years, with little change to its physicality save for the addition of four soaring minarets. And yet, this ancient stalwart has constantly transformed – or, at least, the way people view it has.

The Hagia Sophia has long been seen as a place of cross-cultural communication and interfaith dialogue, the centre of the centre of the world, where ‘east’ meets ‘west’. Many believe this status is under threat, as the Hagia Sophia, by order of court and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan himself, is once again a practicing mosque.


The Hagia Sophia is a meeting place of faith and culture, and as such it is a site of friction as much as cooperation. There is an obvious friction between Erdoğan’s Islamist-populist politics and the western international order, which is generally suspicious of political Islam. But there are subtler sources of friction surrounding the Hagia Sophia’s newest transformation. One is within Turkey itself, between the Turkish government, its history, and its people. Another friction has emerged in the international community: between its value of ‘world heritage’ and its deep-seated western bias.


Erdoğan the Conqueror

President Erdoğan likes to present himself as a conqueror, an heir to the Ottoman Empire whose former glory will be restored under his leadership. The United Nations noted that the Turkish government associated the Hagia Sophia decision with language of conquest and symbols referencing the Ottoman Empire. Erdoğan’s privileging of Ottoman history comes at the expense of more recent history which has for a long time been the basis of Turkish nationalism: the secular political tradition founded by Atatürk after the dissolution of the Empire in 1922.


A country’s relationship with its own past is always cherrypicked: the classic example in the Turkish case is its continued denial of the Armenian genocide perpetrated by Atatürk himself despite international pressure. In this case, however, Erdoğan’s selective championing of Turkish history has alienated not only the outside world, but also large swarths of the Turkish population.


Crucial to Erdoğan is the reception of the Turkish populace. The transformation was heralded by many, and thousands flocked to the first prayer services on July 24. However, Turkish reactions to the decision have been more ambivalent than these examples suggest, and the case has brought to the fore deep divisions in the population. Lamentations from citizens who value secularism have been countless. Many high-profile Turkish writers and intellectuals protested, including writer Elif Shafak and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk. The decision is not as popular as anticipated in Erdoğan’s base. Erdoğan’s populism has proved a double-edged sword: more politicians now seek to capitalise on the traditional Muslim base. Even with a new mosque, Erdoğan’s empire may not remain as stable as he hopes.


A ‘supremacist view of history’

The decision to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque prompted protest beyond Turkish borders. The full spectrum of criticisms call for the respect of ‘global heritage’, but popular definitions of this term appear to be vague, amorphous, and betray a bias towards the protection of heritage the west claims as its own.


Worries about the Hagia Sophia’s status change are not misplaced. It is a place of tremendous cross-cultural importance, and preservation of its beauty and history should be an international concern. Ongoing protest and calls for accountability seem to have worked, and the Turkish government has addressed many of the concerns expressed by the international community.


Indeed, the government’s haste to quell the concerns of the international community comes in contrast to past actions that have provoked critique, such as its repression of Turkish Kurds and its attack on Kurdish fighters in Syria. This may be Turkey attempting to improve relations with Russia, its traditional ally, which have cooled recently following disagreements over Syria and the Armenia-Azerbaijan border conflict. The Hagia Sophia’s transformation exacerbated these tensions, with Russian officials expressing concern for the building’s Orthodox Christian heritage. In any case, the Turkish government has expressly committed to the preservation in place of the Hagia Sophia’s Christian relics, and it has confirmed that the site will remain open to all visitors outside of prayer services.


The case of the Hagia Sophia has proven that there is an effective way to address concerns when world heritage is threatened by a political force. But the international community does not show similar will when less famous historical sites are threatened – especially when those sites are not associated with western history. The Hagia Sophia case contrasts starkly with other recent concerns about heritage preservation. There was little international outcry when Rio Tinto destroyed the Juukan Caves, nor when Native American burial sites were blown up earlier this year by construction firms building the US-Mexico border wall.


The Human Rights Council cautioned that changing the status of the Hagia Sophia reflects Erdoğan’s ‘supremacist view of history’. The Hagia Sophia’s historical richness must be defended, but it must also be acknowledged that Erdoğan is not the only actor capable of supremacy. If the international community is to fight for the safety of the Hagia Sophia, it should take the opportunity embrace the universalism inherent to ‘global heritage’, and ensure that sites that are not directly related to western history are afforded the same protection. Heritage faces far more formidable threats than the eroding power of natural forces. The cases of these indigenous sites and of the Hagia Sophia prove that supremacist views of history are far greater concerns, be they wielded by corporations or political leaders.


Grace Gardiner is the Europe and Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs


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