“Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman Icon”

Until the recent rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to political prominence, Turkey’s secular Kemalist order had for decades remained largely unchallenged.  This changed with the stunning landslide election victory that swept Erdogan and the AKP into power in 2002, producing enormous excitement and hope inside Turkey and abroad for genuine democratization and progressive reform. 

The initial optimism that stemmed from the AKP’s rhetorical affinity for genuine democracy, civic liberty, and religious freedom has disappeared in the fifteen years since Erdogan and the AKP have established their dominance over Turkey.  The nationalist secular authoritarianism that characterized Kemalist republican Turkey has been systematically undermined and transformed.  However, Kemalism has not been replaced by genuine democracy, civic liberty, and religious freedom.  Instead, it has been superseded by a new nationalist Islamist authoritarianism.  This new Islamist authoritarianism, that has extended its influence, if not outright domination, over Turkish society and state, continues to cautiously pay homage to Kemal but increasingly, and now openly, draws its real inspiration and aims from an idealized version of the Ottoman imperial past.   

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman vision—encapsulated, in part, in the phrase, “Turkey: From Sarajevo to Baghdad,” unabashedly first promoted by his influential former foreign minister, Ahmet Davtoglou—is premised upon Turkey’s return to its former stature as a world power, a project Erdogan himself is leading.  Unlike Kemal and his secular nationalists who saw the Islamic theocratic system as the root of the Ottoman Empire’s inability to survive in the modern world, Erdogan regards the later Ottoman Turks’ drift away from Islamism as the direct cause of the empire’s decline and dissolution. 

Consequently, although Islam under the AKP has remained an instrument to be utilized by the state, in order for Turkey to reach its full potential, Islam must again play an increasingly decisive role in culture, public affairs, and the life of the state, just as it did in Ottoman times.  This neo-Ottomanism, of course, represents a reversal of the secular Kemalist system.  According to the neo-Ottoman project, Islam will be privileged and harnessed by the state to help restore Turkey to its rightful place as a global force and as the leading country within the Muslim world.

Like Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople, and President Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Erdogan, whom many observers describe as a president who acts like a sultan, recognizes the importance of symbols and symbolism for forging Turkey’s Ottoman revival.  Similar to Mehmet, who used his forcible conversion of the great Byzantine Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia to a mosque to showcase the superiority of Islam and the Ottoman Empire, or Kemal, who employed Hagia Sophia to demonstrate the secularization and modernization of republican Turkey, Erdogan has exploited Hagia Sophia to promote neo-Ottomanism and to mark his government’s public embrace of Islam.  In this sense, the AKP’s gradual re-Islamization of Hagia Sophia should be understood as a deliberate signal by Erdogan to the masses of his Islamist supporters of his commitment to realize a future in which Turkey, with Islam at the center of its public life, reigns supreme once more as a regional hegemon, a world power, and the leader of the Muslim community of nations. 

Given Turkey’s current neo-Ottoman orientation and its earlier provocations against the status of Hagia Sophia as a museum, the only thing surprising about the Erdogan government’s recent use of the historic Christian structure for Muslim religious purposes was that it produced any surprise at all.  The AKP’s consolidation of political power and its steady transition to Islamist authoritarianism has been accompanied by a corresponding campaign of incremental measures and steps aimed at the eventual conversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. 

As early as 2013, Turkey’s deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, informed reporters that Hagia Sophia would be used again as a mosque, opining: “We currently stand next to Hagia Sophia Mosque…we are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia, but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”  In 2014, the Turkish parliament held exploratory discussions on how to change the status of Hagia Sophia in the future.  That same year, the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom identified and condemned Turkey’s encroachment on Hagia Sophia as a “creeping conversion.”  Simultaneously, the United Nations expressed its disapproval, as it has many times since, over statements made by Turkish officials that have threatened the integrity of Hagia Sophia’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Undeterred by international criticism, Turkey has continued its aggressive policy of targeting Hagia Sophia.  This new phase of operations also witnessed a series of deliberate actions intended to insult and humiliate Turkey’s Orthodox Christians.  On April 11, 2015, one day before Orthodox Easter Sunday, a Quran recitation sanctioned by the Diyanet (the State Directorate of Religious Affairs), for the first time in 84 years, took place inside Hagia Sophia.  The following year, Turkish authorities appointed a permanent imam to Hagia Sophia.  The timing of the Diyanet’s announcement of the imam’s appointment was made on the same Sunday in November 2016 as Turkey’s Orthodox Christians celebrated the 25th anniversary of the enthronement of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I.

The AKP’s actions enjoy widespread popular support in Turkey.  Every May 29, increasingly extravagant celebrations of the conquest of Constantinople take place in Istanbul and across Turkey.  Leading up to May 29, endless barrages of television programs and films aimed at children and adults alike depict Greek Christians as treacherous and evil, provoking nationalist and self-righteous feelings of entitlement to Hagia Sophia as a mosque.  This sort of carefully stoked public “conquest mania” produced a mass rally of activists who gathered in front of Hagia Sophia on May 29, 2016, to demand that the building be converted to a mosque. 

A crucial step in that direction was taken on June 1, 2016, when the Diyanet announced that state television would broadcast a program, highlighted by readings from the Koran, from Hagia Sophia everyday during the month of Ramadan.  The first guest of the television program was Mehmet Gormez, the head of the State Directorate of Religious Affairs, who discussed the spectacular dome crowning Hagia Sophia and, with considerable imagination and invention, explained to a nation-wide audience of tens of millions the dome’s importance in Islamic history.  

Despite the annual revelries in May that celebrate the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the August and September commemorations that glorify the 1922 Turkish victory against Greece and the Entente Powers, Turkish nationalists, while sidestepping the genocide of Anatolia’s Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians, claim victim status for themselves.  Perhaps not surprising, albeit astonishing, Hagia Sophia is now being used to symbolize Turkey’s victimhood narrative.  In the view of Turkish nationalists, especially Islamist nationalists, the Ottoman Empire was a veritable paradise destroyed by Western imperialists and their Christian toadies within the empire.  Furthermore, because of Kemal’s eagerness to have the Republic of Turkey accepted into the modern Western community of nations, Ankara was supposedly cowed or coaxed by Turkey’s recent enemies into transforming Hagia Sophia into a museum. 

This nationalist myth concludes with the assertion that this mendacious manipulation by the Western Great Powers aimed to ensure Turkey’s psychological subservience to the West by denying the Turkish people the freedom to exercise their will over the most visible symbol and reminder of Turkish greatness and triumph: the Great Fatih, the “Great Conquest,” Mosque.  This popular narrative has most recently been expanded to incorporate the newly manufactured deception that claims Kemal never actually ordered the conversion of Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum and that the state document and Kemal’s signature appearing therein that initiated this action are forgeries, a proposition Erdogan himself has publicly applauded. 

In coordination with the AKP, the ultranationalist Anatolian Youth Association, which has collected over 15 million signatures in support of its campaign to convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque, summarizes this thinking: “Keeping Hagia Sophia closed is an insult to our Muslim population…it symbolizes our ill-treatment by the West.”  Voicing an alternative, even if declining, perspective, a prominent Turkish scholar, who, fearing retribution from Erdogan’s supporters, commented anonymously in a June 2016 interview with Al-Monitor: “the matter of Hagia Sophia has been manipulated shamelessly in the last decade.  They [Erdogan and the AKP] are feeding the dream of an Ottoman revival…for pious Muslims everywhere, it is really sad to watch this opportunistic propaganda.”     

Widespread popular acceptance of these inventive victimhood narratives has contributed to a commonly held nationalist view that Turkey’s actual sovereignty is suppressed by the Western powers and that Turkey’s freedom, ipso facto, cannot be realized until Hagia Sophia is converted once more to a mosque.  According to this perspective, only then can Turkey become truly independent and fulfill its destiny, which means only then can Turkey regain both the glorious Ottoman inheritance and neo-Ottoman future to which it is entitled and has been denied by the West.  Hence, in the hands of the AKP government Hagia Sophia has become an uncompromising symbol, an icon and tool to mobilize Turkish nationalism and legitimize neo-Ottomanism. 

Continuing this escalating trend, Ramadan, in June 2017, was marked by a tangible increase in the aggressive use of Hagia Sophia by Turkish officials for Muslim religious and state purposes.  Abiding by the long-established practice of Western appeasement towards Turkey, most European governments and Christian religious establishments remained silent.  Only Greece’s Foreign Ministry, the United States Department of State, and UNESCO issued serious rebukes against Ankara for its provocative actions.

The Islamization of Hagia Sophia, like the Islamization of Turkish society and state, under President Erdogan and the AKP does not merely represent a simple partisan contest between secularists and Islamists for the control of Turkey.  Likewise, the plight of Hagia Sophia constitutes more than yet another example of Turkish nationalist contempt for non-Muslims and their history, a perennial feature, after all, of Turkish rule, whether secular or religious.  Instead, the significance and purpose of the recent provocations against Hagia Sophia should be viewed, and can only be understood, from a perspective that takes into account both the symbolic and utilitarian importance of the Great Fatih Mosque for Islamist Turkish nationalists. 

For Islamist Turkish nationalists, Hagia Sophia stands as the most powerful, visible reminder of Ottoman Turkey’s might and glory, a rallying standard for a return to that former greatness, and a national icon to help forge neo-Ottomanism under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  It is a religiously charged symbol that is inseparable from President Erdogan’s Islamist ambitions and imagined destiny for Turkey in Europe, the Middle East, and the world.  Moreover, the veritable re-conquest of Hagia Sophia for Islam serves as an important expression of Erdogan’s vainglorious neo-Ottoman place for himself in history.  As noted in a July 17 Financial Times International article on the anniversary of the July 15, 2016, abortive coup against Erdogan: “His [Erdogan’s] narrative means that the rise of the Turkish nation and the future of the global Muslim community hinge on Erdogan as a person and a politician.  The implication is that, if you don’t support Erdogan, you are neither a good Turk or a good Muslim.”  In this sense, the exploitation and use of Hagia Sophia by Turkey’s authoritarian Islamist government stands as a bellwether, one the international community should not continue to ignore.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University in Salem, Massachusetts, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.