History, and a good deal of it medieval, has been making headlines in Serbia lately. The municipal government of Belgrade keeps allocating millions of euros for the project of piercing the foundations of the city’s medieval fortress in order to build a funicular over the Sava river – a project that was ‘temporarily halted’ by the administrative court, and that led to Europa Nostra listing the fortress amongst the most endangered heritage sites in Europe. Simultaneously, in early 2021, a gargantuan statue of Stefan Nemanja (c.1113–1199), a ruler of medieval Serbia, was erected in central Belgrade.
Stefan Nemanja monument in Belgrade, Source Wikimedia
What about Nemanja?!
Nemanja was indeed an important figure of the twelfth century. Through violence and diplomacy, he won the right for people living in the central Balkans to pay taxes to him, instead of to his brothers or to the Byzantine emperor. He used some of those recourses to sponsor important religious monuments that are still extant, such as Studenica in Serbia and Hilandar on Mount Athos. He was deemed important enough to negotiate and make alliances with both Eastern and Western Roman emperors. He died a monk on Mount Athos and his sons and heirs created an elaborate hagiographic cult for him, parts of which included ethnic elements. Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised when all of a sudden everyone in Serbia appeared astounded by the fact that Nemanja still does not have a monument in his honour. It was like everyone woke up one morning with a pressing question in their head: “Dear God, what about Nemanja?!”
The answer came in a swift reaction from both the city of Belgrade and the national government, under the direct initiative of the president of Serbia. The rest is history. A contested committee selected the proposal of the Russian sculptor Aleksandr Rukavishnikov. One that comprised a youthful figure of Nemanja standing on a cracked Byzantine helmet, holding a sword and a scroll with an excerpt from his charter for the monastery of Hilandar. The total cost, paid via public funds, was unlawfully classified, and remains a mystery. Coming in at over 80 tons and over 23 m in height, cast in bronze, the monument towers over the prematurely abandoned building of the first railway station in Serbia. It also diverts the eye from the controversial Belgrade Waterfront construction project. And still, the only controversial point for the majority of people in Serbia, seems to be that Nemanja is holding a sword and not a cross.
The excerpt from the Hilandar charter on the pedestal, Source Wikimedia
A momentous charter
However, I would like to concentrate on the other immortalised object in this composition – the symbolic Hilandar charter. The text of this historical document is, to my knowledge, quoted twice on the monument. There is a modern Serbian translation of the first couple of phrases of the charter on the stylized pedestal. But the scroll in Nemanja’s left hand zooms in on half a sentence from the pedestal text, this time in the original Old Slavonic. The patrons and the author leave no doubt as to the meaning of their reading of the document.
After Nemanja renounced the title of grand župan in favour of his middle son, and son-in-law to the Byzantine emperor, he retired to Mount Athos and founded Hilandar in 1198. He began the document, which aimed to regulate property and the administrative rights of this monastery, with a short story of his legacy. God created the Earth and partitioned rule over it between emperors, kings, and princes. Nemanja’s ancestors were set to rule over the Serbian land. Nemanja inherited it, and in a seemingly contradictory act, enlarged it, annexing territories from the maritime, Greek, and Albanian lands. The Serbian historiographic canon views this single paragraph not only as the ultimate political philosophy of Serbian statehood and the concrete matrix of international relations, but also as a sort of DNA for the survival and development of the Serbian nation for at least a millennium to come.
While the pedestal inscription ends with the list of lands annexed by Nemanja, the bronze scroll zooms in on the sentence: “…and he appointed me to be the grand župan, named Stefan Nemanja in the holy baptism. And I renovated my fore-fatherland, and fortified it better, by the will of God and my own wisdom…” The bronze monumental Nemanja is thus the founder of the medieval Serbian state. The fact that he presents himself as an heir rather than a founder is not seen as a contradiction, but as an opportunity to antedate continuous Serbian statehood even further into the past.
Nemanja’s monumental scroll / Source Wikimedia
The major part of the document – professing Nemanja’s religious feelings and defining the economic lifeline for the monastic community – seems to have been less interesting and less worthy of monumental projection. The crucial part of the charter clearly separates the landed property of the monastery from that of the Serbian crown, and explicitly forbids movement of the dispossessed labourers between the two territories. Amongst others, 8 beekeepers and 170 Vlachs were thus tied to extraterritorial land parcels belonging to Hilandar.
A royal gift
The Hilandar charter was a personal, locally situated, religious, and economic document. It was also political, inasmuch as these four traits are political, but not exclusively or predominantly so. For centuries, the original text was preserved in the monastery itself. The first extant copies that circulated in the former territory of the Serbian kingdom can be dated to the sixteenth century. The modern editions of the text briefly comment on its later life.
King Aleksandar Obrenović in Hilandar / Source Sáva Chilandarets’ History of Hilandar (link in the text)
In the late nineteenth century, Hilandar was predominantly inhabited by monks of Bulgarian ethnic extraction. In a wish to re-appropriate the monastery for the nascent and expanding Serbian nation, king Aleksandar Obrenović (1876–1903) visited Hilandar, on a detour during his trip from Constantinople to Athens in 1896. Once there, he paid off a part of the monastery’s debts and was gifted the founding charter and a valuable twelfth-century gospel by the monks. The charter was kept in the National Library in Belgrade until the government began its retreat to the south during the First World War. However, the chest containing the charter and other documents disappeared at a train station, never to be found. Luckily, a high-quality lithograph had been produced while the charter was still at its original location. Since 2021, the abridged bronze version of the charter casts its shadow on the defunct train station from which it once departed on its last documented journey.
I was intrigued by this valuable gift of the monks of Hilandar. Since medieval Athonite documents were historically recognized by the legal systems of all the polities that encompassed the territory, including today’s Hellenic Republic, the monks were not quick to give these away. Luckily, Aleksandar Obrenović’s visit was recorded in various texts authored by the librarian of Hilandar, Sáva Chilandarets. The Czech-born monk hailed from a bourgeois family in the Hapsburg Empire, and had arrived at Hilandar about a decade before with several of his adopted sons. He climbed the hierarchy, eventually gaining access to the archive and the library.
Sáva Chilandarets / Source Source Sáva Chilandarets’ History of Hilandar (link in the text)
In both his History of Hilandarand his letter to the Byzantinische Zeitschrift,written at the turn of the twentieth century, Sáva narrates the visit of King Aleksandar as a conscious re-enactment of the 1347 Athonite itinerary of Stefan Dušan, emperor of Serbs and the Greeks. Aleksandar had arrived in time for Easter and planted two olive trees and two cypresses at the same spot where Dušan’s olive tree was allegedly still growing. He gave a sum of money to the monastic administration and bestowed medals of honor upon the brothers, including Sáva. The monks gifted the king with the twelfth-century Miroslav’s gospel, which he subsequently sent to Vienna to be photographed. King Aleksandar kept the original in his personal safe, while the copies were distributed to libraries across Europe. So far, so good, but no mention of the charter.
In his personal correspondence with a friend, a certain J. Z. Raušar, Sáva seems to speak more freely and with a dose of humour. King Aleksandar came, he says, and planted 4 trees. It was too late for planting cypresses, though. They withered and would have to be replaced. The king also distributed medals of honor to both the monks and the Ottoman guards who were following him. There were not enough medals at hand; however, so they had to send extra ones from Belgrade later. The monks gave the king a cross and a rosary. “I had to take out Miroslav’s gospel from the library, while the oldest document, the charter of Stefan Nemanja, was taken from the archive.”
This might be the least enthusiastic description of a gift exchange that I have ever read. It also might help explain why, in his letter to the BZ, Sáva places Aleksandar’s visit right after an invective against Athonite monks who sell items from libraries and archives on the black market. Judging from the coincidence of subsequent historiographic interpretations, political programs, and confection of collective memory, it is at this point that a local economic document, a historical source and a piece of written heritage was given a role in the nation-building process. We are left to wonder if we would still have the original document today, if it had never left the monastery.
Is there history without the nation?
Sáva Chilandarets was an ambiguous figure. He was undoubtably very religious and dedicated to Serbian cultural and political causes of the day. But his penchant for systematization and administration, as well as the fact that he put preservation of written heritage above national sympathies, could have caused frictions with Serbian authorities and intellectuals. In his personal journal, he laments the way that a visiting Serbian bishop ‘cleansed unnecessary books’ from the library in 1895, by attempting to burn ‘Bulgarian’ manuscripts. In the abovementioned letter, he tells his friend about his conflict with Ljubomir Kovačević, a historian and the Serbian minister of education at the time. Since it was taking too long to print Sáva’s catalogue of the Hilandar library in Belgrade, he sent it to be published in Prague. Kovačević was furious that the catalogue would be printed abroad and Sáva was similarly frustrated with the interminable delays in the printing of his History of Hilandar in Belgrade.
While studying history in Belgrade, I was taught that the turn of the twentieth century brought about the victory of so-called critical historiography (which claims Kovačević as its representative) over the romantic one. While the former insisted on a well-established Rankean academic method of historical analysis, the later relied on oral legends and epic poetry. Ours is science, theirs the fairy tale. Ours based in fact, theirs in myth. However, as Aleksandar Ignjatović has shown, the difference between the two was insignificant compared to their common driving force – to tell the history of the nation with an eye to its future. Moreover, the likes of romanticists, Panta Srećković or Miloš Milojević, remained members of the same educational and scientific institutions as critical historians, until the end of their lives. They still serve as role-models to people who today publish books about the indigenous, prehistoric presence of the Serbian nation in the Balkans and beyond.
Romanticised portrait of Nemanja by Kosta Mandrović (Vienna, 1895) Source Google Books
A great number of heirs of the critical school of Serbian historiography today seems to be racing each other in stressing how necessary and justified such a monument of Nemanja and his charter are. At the same time, a recent publication in honor of the anniversary of Nemanja’s birth featured papers by outspoken romanticists alongside academics working at public universities, museums, and other cultural institutions. A professor from a state-funded university and an MP asserted the direct connection between the eagle on the coat of arms of Nemanja, and the one on the current flag of Serbia, stressing the emphatic difference between this bird and the ones of neighboring nations. A page-turn later, a vocal romanticist puts forward the bogus claim of a direct bloodline between the first documented medieval Serbian dynasty, the Vlastimirovićs, and one of the last ones, Lazarevićs, with Nemanja as a crucial link. But this unbroken chain is less surprising if we remember the voluminous History of the Serbian Statehood, penned by the doyens of critical historiography. The framing that this book sets up, by establishing a transtemporal unity by means of national essence and institutions, is easily filled in with genetic material and symbolic imagery.
In this moment in history, the global health and environmental crises underline the necessity to think along the lines of both local, sub-national communities and regional and global ones. I view the inability to move away from national epistemic and narrative models, not only as a symptom of the lack of critical thinking, but also as one signalling the crisis of basic imagination. It is not a question of eliminating the story of ethnic or national communities, but of not viewing them as essentially, continuously, and predominantly important. Historiography being by necessity imbued with politics, we shouldn’t keep selling exclusively national politics as the only sound historical method and denying historical existence to all other entities and forms of agency. And if we lack imagination, it suffices to go back to Sáva Chilandarets’ concerns for the overpopulation and overextraction of wood on Athos that he voiced in the letter to the BZ, or as a matter of fact, to the eight beekeepers from Nemanja’s charter.
Mt. Athos. CC-BY-NC-ND Olivia Denk Flickr
Why are those eight anonymous beekeepers less worthy of being monumentally honored than Stefan Nemanja? Why are they less valuable than the annexed territories? Why is their role, their labour and contribution less essential to the development of Serbian statehood? We know that Nemanja’s heirs did put the names of all the Vlachs supporting Žiča monastery into the monumental wall inscription of its charters, even though Zlata, Mužilo, Bratilo (say their names!) and the others might have already been dead by the time the inscription was painted.
And if we do agree to honour Nemanja’s memory and legacy, the question remains of how should we do it? Should we maybe finally get critical editions of all the sources about his life? And how can we fit all of his complex hagiographical existence into a single monument, including him being born as a refugee, being doubly baptized, avoiding some conflicts, burning books and confiscating the property of heretics, possibly speaking multiple languages, having huge amounts of gold and giving some of it away?
When king Aleksandar Obrenović took the Hilandar charter; he, his government, and national historians were looking for ways to stabilize newly-conquered territories in the south and expend them further, territories that corresponded with Nemanja’s annexations. When King Aleksandar Karađorđević (1888–1934) sat in front of a purple curtain and an the image of Emperor Dušan (1308–1355) during the opening ceremony of the Second International Congress of Byzantine Studies in Belgrade, the historians present were dreaming of a Yugoslavia modelled on the notion of a medieval multinational empire, with the Serbian nation at its core. When the relics of Prince Lazar (1329–1389) were taken on a tour of Serbia in 1989, its leadership seemed to be preparing a narrative of a moral victory in the midst of a military defeat, modelled on the legend of the Kosovo battle and disturbingly prophetic. What will the current government do with its celebration of Nemanja’s statehood project? Time will tell. But the fact that this state of Nemanja is conceived as a relation between a monumental ruler and a faceless, nameless crowd that exist only as a nation, does not seem promising.
The issues of medieval heritage, memory, history and nation-building in modern Serbia will be discussed in the coming Oxford – Uppsala event,Our Daily Byzantium: Medieval Heritage, Nation-building, and Politics in Serbiaon March 25th. We will hear diverse voices, broaden the frame of thinking, and introduce the international community to this topic. Hosted by Alexandra Vukovich and myself, the debate will include contributions by Filip Ejdus, Milena Repajić, Aleksandar Ignjatović, Marko Šuica and Višnja Kisić, as well as discussion with Emir Filipović and Mirela Ivanova. Read more about this event and register here.
I would like to thank Markéta Kulhánková for helping me procure the bibliography for this post.
Last weekend two of the NBN members decided to have a closer look at the current state of the Chora church and Hagia Sophia efter the turbulence of the last two months.
In Chora/Kariye Camii, a minbar has been added to the inner naos, and some sort of drop-down curtains to cover up the three mosaics there during prayer times. All other mosaics visible so far, and one still pays entrance fees to enter the building. The frescoes have been inaccessible for more than a year due to the ongoing restoration of the exonarthex, unclear how that will proceed. The building as a whole is still covered in scaffolding for the overall renovation.
Hagia Sophia: the apse mosaics are covered by veils, but the mosaics in the narthex are visible again. The floor of the main nave is now largely covered by green carpets. The gallery has been inaccessible since the pandemic started, and it is unclear when and how it will be opened. The scaffolding for restoration of the main dome and pendentives is still in place, though covered by reproductions of Qur’anic inscriptions.
In sum, it seems that so far many of the worst fears and concerns for the buildings that have been making the rounds on social media may be rather ill founded. Rather, it is in the way the two buildings relate to their urban surroundings that it becomes possible to perceive the full impact of the statement that was made by the Erdogan government by the decision to re-transform them into mosques.
In the case of Chora, the change so far seems neglectable, situated as the site is at the outskirts of the poorer and more conservative neighborhoods of Edirnekapı. These are, on the one hand, more economically dependent on the Chora as a major tourist magnet; on the other hand, the use of the building as a place of Muslim worship blends more imperceptibly with the needs and habits of the local community. At least for the moment, it seems that the status quo may be not entirely different from how the case has been with the Pammakaristos church / Fethiye camii not far from there, where the main naos has been used as a mosque at the same time as the exonarthex with the mosaics has been accessible as a museum (which is currently, however, also undergoing a renovation of unclear outcome).
In the case of the Hagia Sophia, it seems fair to say that its reconversion brings a significant change to the whole Sultanahmet neighborhood around it. Throughout the Republican period of Turkey, Sultanahmet was something like an open-air history museum (first envisioned as such by Henri Prost) where the Topkapi Palace, Archaeological Museum, the Hagia Sophia, the Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the various cisterns, hamams, bazaars and other smaller sites like the Mosaic museum, blended in an internationalized and secularized cityscape that belonged first and foremost to the tourists – an arena for manifesting Turkey as a “modern nation”, implicitly to Western eyes. A main argument for the retransformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was that it would make the building accessible to everyone: it would neither be denied the local Muslims that wanted to pray without having to pay an entrance fee, nor the tourists, which would still be welcome. In effect, the sheer amount of visitors both at prayer times and between them is so considerable that the whole square in front of the building up to the Hippodrome has been sealed off by barricades to regulate the queues, and the vast majority of these visitors follow a conservative Muslim dress code of a kind that is rarely seen even around the major historical mosques of Istanbul (with the possible exception of Eyüp). It indicates that either the expectation in the reconversion, or the government promotion of it, has been very strong among Turkish conservative Muslims and Muslims abroad (many of the visitors seem to come from Arab countries). Needless to say, all women visiting the Hagia Sophia also now have to cover their heads.
In both Chora and Hagia Sophia, it remains to see how the sites will change as time goes by and both the novelty of the transformation as well as the memory of their previous incarnations as museums are fading. Still, two interesting trajectories can at least be made out. First, against the backdrop of the annual use of the Hippodrome as an arena for Ramadan festivities, the almost constant closures in whole or parts of the Archaeological museum, the growing aura of “Ottomania” surrounding the Topkapi Palace (where, incidentally, the entrance fee argument is apparently invalid) and the use of the Gülhane Park as venue of Tulip festivals and a “Museum of Islamic science” of very dubious provenance, the retransformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque seems to have finally put an end to the Republican attempts to neutralize the past of the Sultanahmet region. It is now an open-air museum of historicism rather than history, a manifestation of the new collective narrative of the AKP government. Secondly, the simultaneous opening or planned opening of the Tekfur Saray and the Blachernai Palace not far from the Chora church as museums (again, with an Ottoman touch) seem to indicate that the neighborhoods from the city wall down to the hipsterfied quarters of Balat may paradoxically be about to mutate into the main areas where tourists from particularly Western countries will henceforth go to look for a more “individualized” Istanbul experience.
In both cases, of course, the driving force behind the transformation is neither historicism nor individualism, but consumerism. But that is a different story.
Myrto Veikou has handed in her doctoral dissertation for the traditional “spikning” at Uppsala University: “Spatial paths to holiness: Literary ‘lived spaces’ in eleventh-century Byzantine saints’ lives”. The dissertation will be defended on September 26 with Stephanos Efthymiadis as faculty examiner. After that, a research position in the new RJ programme “Retracing Connections” awaits Myrto. Please explore the programme here: https://retracingconnections.org/
As turquoise carpets begin to cover up the ancient marble floors of the Hagia Sophia in preparation for the first Muslim Friday prayers to be held there since 1935; as various rumors about the future of its Byzantine mosaics make their rounds on websites and social media; as one petition follows another against the decision of the Turkish state to revoke the building’s status as a museum (and, as we hardly need to keep our readers updated about, the plans for the 2021 congress in Istanbul come to a sudden halt), one question seems to remain strangely unanswered: why? There is certainly no lack of mosques in Istanbul that could explain the instant need for yet another one, and one at that which has to be installed, at very short notice and by extremely complicated means, within a world heritage site. What makes the Hagia Sophia so important as a site of prayer that the Turkish president has invited Muslims from all over the world to express their joy and relief over its re-conversion into a mosque? Is it a sheer provocation against the Christian and / or secular dictates of the West, a political gambling with religious and nationalist sentiments within Turkey? Or both (and if so, how)?
Hagia Sophia, February 2020. Photo by the author.
The point in the following is not to make any statement about what the Hagia Sophia is or what it should be or what it should not be, but merely to propose an interpretation of the current controversy that goes beyond Huntingtonesque solipsisms about the fated enmity of religions and civilizations and instead takes a look at what the building has signified in the past and what it might, consequently, mean to current decision-takers. It could be argued, as often seems to be the case, that the building means different things depending on the semiotic framework of the beholder: to (Orthodox) Christians, as a monument to the apex of Byzantine culture and civilization under emperor Justinian I, to (Sunni) Muslims, as the foremost prize of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople under Mehmed II, and to secularists, as a living proof of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürks) commitment to Turkish neutrality and reconciliation. But the fact that the three readings are fixated on one and the same location indicates that the semiotic field is to be found inside the Hagia Sophia as much as outside of it; in other words, that the three are intimately connected in ways that none of them may be willing to openly admit.
The Power and the Glory
The main dome. Photo by the author.
The Hagia Sophia was built as a political statement. In between the schizophrenic legacies that Procopius would devote to him as simultaneously defender and restorer of Roman power in the Mediterranean, and embodiment of the empire’s inner decay and deterioration, and after the Nika riots that had almost evicted him from Constantinople and left the central areas of the young capital in smoking rubble, Justinian I needed a visual manifestation of power that would forever stamp his name upon the fabric of the city, confirm the status of the city as center of cultural gravity within the empire, and show the world that the empire had lost nothing of its ancient vigor or attraction. The ”Great Church”, which would indeed remain the biggest church in Christendom for almost a millennium, was erected at impressive speed; it was inaugurated just five years after its much humbler predecessor had been destroyed in the Nika riots.
By one of the many ironies of fates, this was precisely the amount of time that it would take, practically to the years a century later, for the nascent Caliphate to conquer the entire Middle East from the empire. The parallel is of course coincidental, but still merits some attention: if Justinian had (as the anecdote goes) outdone Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem when the first liturgy was celebrated in the Hagia Sophia in 537, the Caliph Umar prayed on the newly conquered Temple Mount in Jerusalem in 638 while listening to a prophecy about the Divine wrath that was about to befall Constantinople. The symbolical significance of the late Roman capital in Early Muslim conquests cannot be overstated: it figures, as a tantalizing end point of the conquests, in Muslim eschatology which seems to have both inspired and been inspired by the repeated attempts of the young Caliphate to conquer the city, from the mid-seventh century raids where Abu Ayyoub Ansari died up to the great siege of 717–18.
In these traditions, Constantinople was the Roman Empire; but, it might be inferred, The Great Church was Constantinople: it is no coincidence that later Turkish receptions of this history seem to have internalized the prophecies in such a way that Paradise was promised to the Muslim who would pray inside the Hagia Sophia. As in all such cases, the distinction between the terrestrial and eschatological end was blurred. The conquest of all terrestrial empires would have put the Caliphs and their followers in charge of a Paradise on earth; at the same time, the fall of all terrestrial empires would have signalled the impending Day of Judgment and so, by consequence, the coming of the heavenly Paradise. The two Paradises were one; and, while the early Caliphs lacked a Great Church, they made the second Justinian support the decoration of the Great Mosque in Damascus in such a way that the merging was apparent to everyone.
The Whore of Babylon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun
Christians were hardly unprepared for the setbacks they had faced. The relationship between the Christian salvation story and the Roman Empire had always been a complicated one, and although the Apocalypse of John played a less central status in the East, Byzantine traditions from this time prepared for a tentative fall of Constantinople in similar ways both to how the Muslims imagined it, and to how the Early Christian tradition had prophesied the fall of Rome: the ”Great Babylon”, embodying all sins and vices that are corrupting the earth, and ruled by or personified by a woman, is ultimately destroyed – that is, unless it is saved by a man. In the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, the emperor is suddenly, at the very moment when the Muslims have penetrated the walls of Constantinople, shaking off his “drunkenness” to evict the intruders from all the lands they have conquered.
The apse, mosaic of the Virgin (9th century). Photo by the author
But it is not merely by resorting to manly ideals that the city can still spy a hope of surviving its inevitable doom. The cult of the Virgin Mary as protector of Constantinople increases in the wake of the repeated assaults against it, not merely those from Muslims: the Blachernae shrine was included within the city walls already after the 626 Avar Siege, and the walls themselves were understood to stand under a particular protection by the Virgin, who denied the unworthy entry into her domains. The imagery is well-known from Late Ancient and Medieval hymns and prayers to the Mother of God and imbedded in the visual code of innumerable Orthodox churches and icons, where she embodies – in the words of Romanos the Melodist – “paradise in a cave”. The Hagia Sophia is no exception: the famous mosaic of the Theotokos, once described by the patriarch Photios, is found in the apse above the choir. Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453, is said to have taken a liking to the image; at least it remained visible – as can be seen on drawings from the eighteenth century – long into the Ottoman era.
If the terrestrial Paradise can be saved by invoking its celestial roots or recalling its eschatological meaning, then the fall of the city will first and foremost be a moral one: the Virgin will take her protecting veil from it only if it lapses into sin. Whether Constantinople ultimately “fell” or was “conquered” is still a matter of discussion in English, but it is notable that the former term is never used with reference to the Crusader rape and pillage in 1204. If used, it is reserved for the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
Emasculating the Conqueror and Revirginating the Fallen
The Arabic word for conquering, fataḥa, originally means to open. From there derives the term futūḥ which is used to describe the Early Muslim conquests of the Middle East, and the epithet that was eventually bestowed upon Mehmed II as conqueror of Constantinople, Fatih, which in turn has provided the name for the administrative unit of Istanbul that corresponds to the old Byzantine city. The Ottomans were well aware that they could claim a historical continuity from the Early Muslims who had tried to conquer Constantinople in the seventh and eighth centuries: they erected a shrine to Ayyoub (Eyüp) Ansari outside the old city walls (almost facing the bygone Blachernae shrine within) where new sultans underwent a kind of coronation ceremony, and marked several other tombs in the city which they claimed belonged to fallen Arab warriors from the sieges. Both the conquest of the city, and the attempts to conquer it, thus became parts of a sacred history of desire and possession.
The southern gallery, facing West. Photo by the author.
It was never uncontested, however. At the very latest from the Russo-Turkish war in 1768–74 it was clear that the Ottomans were defending their prize against an enemy whose goal it was to liberate the “captive maiden at the Bosporus” and make the Hagia Sophia into a church again. Russian and other Orthodox Christian claims to Constantinople would considerably affect nineteenth-century politics, and the city’s future was unclear still after the showdown in the First World War. It explains Mustafa Kemals decision to make Ankara the capital of the new Turkish republic, and forms an important backdrop for his decision to transform the Hagia Sophia into a museum. But while his neutralization of the contested ground came nothing short of an emasculation to those who still believed in the Caliphate, it could also be said to have constituted an act of revirgination which once again made the building possible to conquer.
From the 1950s, as Turkey regained political confidence due to its NATO membership and Istanbul began to grow into the most populous city of Europe, the cult around the conquest and the conqueror reappeared. Under the current AKP rule it has turned into a veritable obsession, as can be seen in movies, TV series, monuments, memorial sites and a whole panorama outside the city walls. The paradox about this is that it has taken place as Turkish state authorities have often done their best to play down, deny and even erase the Byzantine heritage of the city, which raises the question which city they actually take a pride in having conquered. The rapid dwindling of the non-Muslim population of Turkey has further detached the modern state from the past that it is trying to emulate. What remains is just the neurotically iterated act of power and submission of a faceless opponent, the scenery of a walled city that exists solely for the purpose of being taken, over and over again.
To Have and Not to Have
For the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the conquest is a rhetorical device on which he has been able to rely at all critical moments. After the July 2016 coup attempt, he made his supporters physically assemble and metaphorically prepare for battle outside the old city walls of Istanbul. Having secured his grip on the Turkish state in the years that followed, the Hagia Sophia was, in many ways, the last bastion for him to conquer. Many wondered why it had taken him so long. Demands to restore its status as a mosque had been raised from the very onset of its conversion into a museum and the boundaries had been pushed long before the rise of the AKP: the enormous calligraphic panes with the names of the Caliphs had been returned to the walls, loudspeakers to enable calls for prayers had been installed in the minarets, a prayer room had been set up for the staff. In Trabzon and Iznik, the old Hagia Sophia churches were transformed from museums into mosques several years ago at the behest of other political parties. That something was finally about to happen in Istanbul was clear the latest on May 29 this year, as the annual celebration of the 1453 conquest was marked by erecting a prop city wall in front of the building.
There may be several reasons behind the timing. The Covid-19 pandemic has bereft Turkey of most of its tourists, which means that no tickets will be sold to the museum anyway; the bleak economic outlook may have led to a desperate desire for a boost of popularity among the traditional AKP electorate. Furthermore, the loss of Istanbul last year to a city mayor from the Kemalist opposition seems to have come close in the eyes of Erdoğan to losing Constantinople to the Byzantines. It should also be recalled that a building which the president for many years loudly expressed his desire to pray in was not the former Great Cathedral of Constantinople but its cousin, the Great Mosque in Damascus. Having in effect lost the battle against Bashar al-Assad – and having been utterly humiliated by Vladimir Putin in his last attempt to discuss the situation in Syria this winter – this is a dream that Erdoğan will never see come true. In an obvious attempt to retaliate for the Hagia Sophia transformation, Russia has declared that it will sponsor the building of a small copy of the Hagia Sophia in Hama, Syria to be used as a Russian Orthodox church. Erdoğan, on the other hand, claims that the lost entrance fees from the Hagia Sophia museum will be compensated by oil revenues from Libya, where he is moving many irregular troops from Syria. And, as to further add to the list of boasts that he will never be able to live up to, he has declared that he is next going to liberate the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from Israel.
The narthex. Photo by the author.
But at the end, the simplest explanation might be that a tension cannot be built up infinitely. At some point it will require a release. In practice, the realization of the promise to once again pray in the Hagia Sophia means a strategical loss to Erdoğan, for the building was always more valuable to him as an object of desire than as an object of possession. Once this Friday prayer is over, it will be just another one of Istanbul’s many mosques. As news of the event are broadcast across the world, stirring anti-Islamic sentiment among Christians and Turkophobia in the Balkans, and confirming European right-wing ideologists that the continent is about to face a neo-Ottoman siege, the question may remain in the long run, whether it was all really worth it.
Det är tunnsått med glädjande nyheter den här våren och osäkerheten är stor om hur vi ska förhålla oss till den globala situation som har uppstått. Så vi gör ett litet inpass från programmet Zvampen 1984, med dagarnas egen jubilar Lasse Åberg och ett budskap som är enkelt och lättfattligt.
As most of our readers have probably already heard, Riksbankens Jubileumsfond has generously decided to support Ingela Nilssons’ project Retracing Connections: Byzantine Storyworlds in Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic (c. 950 – c. 1100)! The project is administrated by Uppsala University, involves over ten scholars – including several NBN members – and will run for eight years, starting immediately this month (January 2020). A brief content description follows below:
During the long eleventh century (c. 950–c. 1100 CE), a host of core narratives that form the substructure of what we know today as Christian Orthodox culture were established in the ‘Byzantine’ world. Some were old stories that were systematically codified or rewritten, others were newly created or imported from other traditions. They concerned saints and commoners, heroes and devils, intellectuals and lunatics, in recognizably social settings or in various landscapes of fantasy. These storyworlds cut across secular and religious lines, involved verbal and pictorial arts, encompassed a variety of communities, from aristocratic settings to the common church-goer and school pupil. Most significantly, these storyworlds occasioned intense translation activity, from and into the languages of Byzantine or Byzantinizing Christians: Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Old Slavonic. The aim of the present project is to revive, preserve, and make available this influential, but largely neglected cultural production. The project aims to study it as an entangled unity from the perspectives of a) storytelling and modern narratology; b) translation and rewriting among different languages; c) medieval book, writing, and performance cultures. By focusing on these four main entangled traditions we hope to illuminate the rich but complex modes by which Byzantine storyworlds appeared and came to be influential for centuries.
We congratulate the applicants Ingela Nilsson, Christian Høgel and Stratis Papaioannou and all the researchers involved, and the whole worldwide Byzantinist and Medievalist community to a project that will enrich research for many years to come!
Five years after the NBN workshop The Straits – Inquiries into a Crossroad took place at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, and thanks to the great efforts of its new director Ingela Nilsson, we are proud to present the outcome in the form of a book in the series Transactions of the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul, called Constantinople as Center and Crossroad (ed. Olof Heilo and Ingela Nilsson). Six of the original papers from the workshop have been joined by four excellent contributions by Ragnar Hedlund, Fedir Androshchuk, Claudia Rapp and Mabi Angar, creating a diachronic panorama of a thousand years of interactions across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, all co-joined at the same nexus on the Bosphorus.
In 2017, the NBN took part in co-arranging a one-day seminar in Stockholm in memory of the Swedish philologist Sture Linnér (1917–2010). The contributions have now appeared as a volume in the series Skrifter utgivna av vänföreningarna för de svenska forskningsinstituten i Athen, Istanbul och Rom under the title Vägar till Bysans (ed. Olof Heilo). For Swedish speakers interested in hearing more, a first book presentation will be held at the Pufendorf Institute in Lund on November 12 at 18:00, and a second one at the Newman Institute in Uppsala on November 18 at 12:00. We also take the opportunity to advertise the Docent lecture of Thomas Arentzen in Lund on the same day as the former event, Fromma träd i tidig kristendom (LUX B251 14:15-15:15)!
I höst utlyser Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (RJ) medel till kostnader för vetenskapligt arbete vid de svenska Medelhavsinstituten i Aten, Istanbul och Rom.
Forskare kan söka medel för att bedriva vetenskapligt arbete inom områdena humaniora, samhällsvetenskap, juridik och religionsvetenskap. Med vetenskapligt arbete avses här forskning och annat avancerat arbete av vetenskaplig karaktär vid museer, arkiv och bibliotek eller motsvarande.
RJ välkomnar ansökningar från enskilda forskare som avlagt doktorsexamen och som har en anställning vid ett svenskt universitet eller högskola, vid ett svenskt museum, arkiv, bibliotek eller motsvarande. Anställningen ska pågå under den tid då forskningsvistelsen planeras äga rum. Vistelsen vid institutet ska omfatta fyra till tolv månader och får delas upp i högst två perioder. Man förväntas aktivt delta i institutets verksamhet under din vistelse.