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.