( Inside Hagia Sophia during my last visit to Istanbul)
Initially published in Hurriyet News Daily
The mosque-cathedral of Cordoba and the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul – both magnificent buildings – were victims of the geopolitical standoff of medieval times and the egos of the new conquerors who wanted to certify their victories and assert their religious superiority. Both were later converted to museums in gestures that reflect modern maturity and increasing harmony between the eternal faiths of Christianity and Islam. Regressive politics, however, still challenges the essence of wisdom. In Turkey, there are increasing calls to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. One way to address the advocates of conversion is to ask them to look west toward Cordoba, which provides a similar, yet opposite history.
The endless modifications to the Cordoba Mosque since King Ferdinand III of Castile conquered it in 1236 are still evident. With its spectacular gilded prayer niche or “mihrab,” the mosque is a stunning representation of the Moorish, Islamicate architecture that was later overshadowed by a Renaissance cathedral imposed on it. The cathedral itself is beautiful, but it looks oddly out of place within the endless marble columns of the mosque. The final outcome of the amalgamation of the two is clear evidence of the futility of the exercise. It evokes a deep sense of despair at the shortsightedness of humans when dogma overrides wisdom.
Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia evokes a similar feeling, but there are subtle differences. Again, this spectacular architectural beauty of Byzantine and Ottoman architecture also symbolizes a historical chapter punctuated by dogma and ego. However, to the credit of the Ottomans, they managed to harmonize their converted mosque in color and structure with the original elements of the church. Therefore, the final product is simply an artistic masterpiece that is less odd and more serene and welcoming to visitors.
Nonetheless, it is pointless to argue about the circumstances that led to the conversions of these two architectural hybrids. It is better to accept them as unique oddities. After all, we cannot change history; we can only learn from it. That is precisely what Turkey did in 1935, when it officially reopened Hagia Sophia as a museum. Regardless of the motive behind it, the move signaled not only a sense of Turkish reconciliation with its ancient past, but also a message of confidence in its Islam, which is no longer threatened by outside Christian enemies.
Sadly, Turkish Islamists, supported by many inside the ruling AKP party, do not share this notion of reconciliation and confidence. They have their own grievances against the “Kemalist secular Republic,” in what they perceive as an attack on Ottoman heritage. Hagia Sophia is at the heart of their campaign. The Anatolia Youth Association has collected 15 million signatures to petition for it to be turned back into a mosque.
Words conquer, and conquest is used casually and conveniently to describe what is usually a biased assessment of historical events. Many Islamists prefer the word conquest, believing it captures a positive, glorious act that was devoid of devastation of the existing civilian population. Within that frame of mind, the invasion of Constantinople is a “conquest,” or, in Turkish/Arabic, Fetih. Other similar acts by opposite forces, such as the Christian recapture of Andalusia, are portrayed in a more negative light. This biased assessment of history feeds a sense of victimhood that encourages political irrationality. Maybe the Turkish Islamists should visit Cordoba to have a taste of how “conquer” can elicit different, sad emotions. Maybe they could also contemplate how they would feel if the Spanish authorities decided to allow Christian prayers again in the mosque. Turning both monuments into museums is the best way to turn the page of a bitter and bloody past that defied the essence of the two faiths, which both advocate mercy and compassion.
As Kadri Gürsel has written, the Kemalist secular Republic gave birth to three main issues of victimhood: The headscarf ban, the restriction on religious high schools and the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a museum. Although Islamists have had a valid argument regarding the headscarf ban – and they rightly reversed it recently – Hagia Sophia is a completely different matter. The issue here is not freedom of choice, as in the scarf ban, or religious oppression, it is simply about resurrecting ego. Islamists claim that without praying in Hagia Sophia, the conquest is incomplete. Such ridiculous thinking conveys a deep and unfounded sense of insecurity from citizens of a nation that was never colonized by foreign forces. Reviving Muslim prayers five times a day in Hagia Sophia or even in the Christian Vatican for that matter will never cure this insecurity. Political Islamists will always be insecure, as long as they view anyone who differs from them as an enemy that is trying to undermine their rule.
King Charles V, who commissioned the Cordoba church, subsequently voiced his displeasure at the result. “They have taken something unique in all of the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city,” he said, and his quote is still valid today. It is time to uncouple Islam from Islamism. The Prophet Muhammad never advocated luxurious mosques or fancy buildings. His simplicity was one of his main virtues. Political diggers who are after score settling may indeed win in Turkey and convert Hagia Sophia to a mosque, but they will probably end up with the same sentiment King Charles V felt – very displeased. The great Hagia Sophia will be just another mosque that “can be found in any city.” Shortsightedness may win its moment in Turkey, but it will only be carved in history as a hollow victory for political greed.