The status of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as the end of Western civilisation’s Eurocentrism


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The intention of the incumbent Turkish authorities to convert Hagia Sophia back into a congregational mosque has been increasingly articulated for several months now. The decision will be taken on 2 July by the Turkish Council of State. Political analysers worldwide deem it to be a desperate attempt made by the based in Ankara powers that be to present an image of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as at least a saviour of the national traditions at a time when his government faces a decline in popularity, failure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, economic crisis, etc. Greece; the Office of International Religious Freedom, based in Washington; UNESCO; Russian Orthodox Church, etc., expressed concern regarding this decision. The European Union, however, has kept noticeably silent on the matter…

An open letter was published by leading US Byzantinists last week, calling for a debate about the status and stewardship of Hagia Sophia of Constantinople/Istanbul. According to the pick of the contemporary Byzantinists the central question is not ‘Should Hagia Sophia be a museum or a mosque?’ but rather ‘How can we best care for Hagia Sophia?’ Such a change in jurisdiction over the historical building would lead to its less responsible use and damage to its historical value, i.e. the medieval mosaics Hagia Sophia is most famous for.

With the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, from 1453 until 1934, Hagia Sophia along with a number of other Christian sanctuaries served as a congregational mosque, and was administered by a pious endowment (vakıf). Between 1923 and 1934, jurisdiction over all such entities was assumed by the Directorate General of Foundations. Appreciating its historical value, the Turkish Council of Ministers transferred (1934) jurisdiction over the building to the Ministry of Education and the building was closed to worship. Presently, Hagia Sophia is administered by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, where the Directorate of all churches museums in Istanbul is based. Worshippers have been allowed to pray in a certain part of the museum since 1991 and since 2016 muezzin’s call to prayer has been heard on a regular basis from the minarets added by the Ottomans. In other words, Muslims are the sole worshippers allowed praying at Hagia Sophia, and in this respect, the cathedral has for a long time now been a museum and a mosque at the same time, but not a church. In light of this, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism is a responsible steward of the site, which attracts some 4 million visitors a year, bringing revenue from ticket sales. Most of these visitors, however, are interested mostly in the mosaics that remain uncovered during the Muslim prayers, which has already happened with other churches converted to mosques and administered by the Directorate General of Foundations. Transferring jurisdiction would result in suspending or delaying the restoration work on Hagia Sophia, which is absolutely crucial.

‘Any decision on its use [of Hagia Sophia] is our (Turkish – E. M.) domestic affair’, Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister answered the concerns voiced by the international community. That would be true if Hagia Sophia was not a UNESCO World Heritage site believed to be the great church of European Christians ever since Justinian I.

Against such a backdrop, Byzantinists wish only Hagia Sophia to remain a museum and restoration work to continue in compliance with internationally recognized conservation principles and standards. The heritage of ancient Greece, Christian humanism and Enlightenment underlie contemporary European civilisation. Converting an emblem of Christianity, dedicated to the Divine Wisdom, into a simple place of worship for Islam without an adequate stewardship, would mean an end to the European civilization, which gradually falls prey to its own neoliberalism, subject solely to profit and benefit from the cheap Gastarbeiter labour. This is perhaps the reason as to why the European Union keeps silent on the matter…

The status of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as the end of Western civilisation’s Eurocentrism

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