Turkey: The “Reconquest” of Hagia Sophia, a Bad Movie

On 19th July, President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan took himself to Hagia Sophia to check on preparations for the first Friday prayer, which was to coincide—what a historical clash!—with the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne (24 July 1923), the foundation of Turkish territorial sovereignty regained after the 1919–1923 war of independence. The “reconquest” of Hagia Sophia was supposed to be spectacular and a rallying cry, but it would be hard put to interest the Turks, who have many other things to worry about.

Nikos Niotis/Flickr

In the interlude between the decision by the Tenth Chamber of the Turkish Council of State on 10th June to annul the November 1934 cabinet ruling designating Hagia Sophia as a museum, and the holding of the first Friday prayers after the ancient cathedral’s conversion to a mosque set for the 24th of July, it is worth examining this latest theatrical stunt on the Turkish political scene—while avoiding the temptation to dismiss it as “Erdoganism”, a form of cultural and teleological reductionism which betrays a failure of political analysis.

Given the early internal reactions to this provocation, it is already clear that the importance attributed by foreign commentators to this latest symbolic media coup is heavily exaggerated. At the risk of upsetting sensation-loving analysts, this affair cannot be portrayed as a victory stolen from the Islamic State (ISIS), despite the fact that its propaganda between 2015 and 2016, especially through its online magazine in Turkish significantly named Konstantiniyye, was focused on the goal of (re)conquering Hagia Sophia.

First of all, above and beyond the exclusive place that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has allotted himself in the Turkish media space, to posit this move as the only issue of a president who is adrift and obsessed from the outset by the Hagia Sophia business, is getting it historically and politically the wrong way round. There are reasons why.

An ancient “battle”

President Erdoğan reacted very reservedly when confronted by the issue during a televised broadcast in March 2019 after the attack at Christchurch.1 In fact, construction was finishing on the new Çamlica mosque, with a bigger capacity that Hagia Sophia. This techno-symbolic achievement seemed to him to be enough; with Çamlica, the New Turkey would have its “megamosque”, destined to become the new Hagia Sophia and the new landmark of the ancient imperial capital, recast in the mould of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). There was no need to reopen that old file, all the more so because the ancient cathedral was one of the most popular international tourist sites, and thus a juicy source of income for the regime.

Also, since 1991, there has in fact been a prayer space for Muslims in Hagia Sophia’s spacious confines, with its own access separate from the tourists, so that devotions can be carried out in the cathedral. Moreover, in October 2018, the selfsame Tenth Chamber of the Council of State had rejected the motion calling for the annulment of the famous decision of 1934. Apparently, the removal of museum status and reassignation of Hagia Sophia was not (any longer) on the agenda of the pragmatic president.

In fact, this “battle for Hagia Sophia” which he had adopted at various times in his political career was not his alone. It is a good deal older than him, going back at least to the 1950s. The big point of reference for revanchist circles, the poem Ayasofya, by the ideologue Osman Yüksel Serdengeçti (1917–1983), which brings together all the arguments and stereotypes, came out in 1959, when Erdoğan was barely five years old. The opening lines set the tone: “O Ayasofya, light of Islam, pride of Turkicity, with your balconies and minarets, you are the honour of the Conquest and the Conqueror, the marvellous, ever-resplendent temple! Why are you thus so empty?” Serdengeçti goes on to announce, like a visionary, the much-desired reconversion (to a mosque) of the “empty temple,” which he said would be “like a second conquest.”

Conservatives and ultra-nationalists

And above all, the struggle is joined by a varied and changing mix of socio-political actors who are independent and have their own motivations.

In April 1994, shortly after Erdoğan’s election as mayor of Istanbul, his party tried and failed to pull off the coup, then gave up on this old dream of anti-republican conservative and ultra-nationalist circles. Thus it was that when a row broke out in the National Assembly on 24 November 2013 over the authenticity of Atatürk’s signature, and over the fact that the decision of 1934 was never published in the Republic’s Official Gazette, it was not started by Erdoğan’s party, but by the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), his necessary but increasingly irksome electoral partner. And more particularly by the deputy leader of his parliamentary group, the former chairman (1993–2008) of the very official Turkish History Association (TTK) set up by Atatürk in 1931, the historian Yusuf Halaçoglu, who in 2013 described Hagia Sophia as the “right of the sword”, the supreme reward of conquerors.

After the decision of 10 June 2020, the TTK solemnly declared on its internet site: “Ayasofya is the national heritage and the national culture.”2 President Erdoğan even seemed to be practically out of it.

At the same time, ideological vigilance, media agitation and legal action relating to this battle were seen to by organisations such as the «Association for the Service of Historic Works of Enduring Foundations and the Environment»3 established in Bursa in 2005. It was this “conservative civil society” foundation which specialised in bringing aggressive court actions, and not only for Hagia Sophia, with cases launched in 2016, then October 2018 (when the Constitutional Council ruled against the re-designation and reassignment of the cathedral), and again in 2020.

Farewell the “dialogue of civilisations” of which Erdoğan, prime minister at the time, was such an enthusiastic supporter in the mid-noughties, along with his Spanish counterpart; farewell the promises given to Unesco after the historical parts of Istanbul were recognised as World Heritage sites in 1985. Farewell also to the spirit of 2010, when Istanbul was designated one of three European Capitals of Culture under EU auspices. Has the great gathering place of “Ottoman tolerance” and the harmonious convergence of the three religions of the Book in Istanbul—the “bridge” metaphor has been worked to death—simply been tossed into the garbage?

Against political disenchantment

So why this U-turn in 2020? Because, with the pandemic continuing its sly progress in Turkey, the economic situation has become extremely critical, despite generous support from Qatar since 2013. The number and percentage of unemployed are at an all-time high, the national currency has never been so weak, and personal and business debt levels have never been higher. The development model based on big projects and the construction sector seems to have seized up. The two new political parties which were finally set up this year by disillusioned AKP supporters are behind much of the speculation about the erosion of the latter’s electoral base.

In another sign of growing political disillusion, the anniversary celebrations for the failed coup d’etat of 15 July 2016 were not as massive and unanimous as the regime would have liked. On top of all that, Turkey’s international position has clearly been weakened, with the alliance with Russia under strain in both Libya and Syria.

So the decision was not inevitable. It is closely linked to the weakening of the regime and to the fact that the alliance with the extreme right has become increasingly vital and constraining for the AKP, which even seems to have lost the initiative in defining the agenda. At a particularly critical moment, it can be seen as a last attempt to revive the belligerent paradigms of the Conquest, of revenge and of national sovereignty, and to thumb the nose symbolically at the “West,” with a view to rallying the national community behind its leader. That the stratagem was not absurd was demonstrated by the total lack of reaction from the main opposition party and from the mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, who has been increasingly visible for the past year: pseudo-warlike rhetoric calling for unity against the “enemies of the nation” still works, disarming a large part of the parliamentary opposition. Only the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) clearly dissociated itself, notably through the voice of one of its deputies, Huda Kaya, who courageously asked the chamber: “Can a looted house become the house of God?”

Tilting at windmills

Erdoğan is well known as a past master in the art of manipulating identity symbols to unify the communities against enemies of all sorts. But he is also known as a pragmatist, who found himself obliged to take on this potentially troublesome file. In any event, reducing this decision to a supposed Islamisation process led by Erdoğan is highly debatable and ignores the complex and contradictory dynamics of the affair. Given the reactions and political developments since 10th June it seems that the ploy has not had the desired rallying effect. In the current difficult context, the cost-benefit ratio of this latest impetuous operation is seriously questionable this time. If the regime is trying to portray itself as “victorious,” it has a hard job convincing the public. The Turkish people have plenty of other worries and preoccupations in everyday life.

The “reconquest of Hagia Sophia” which we are witnessing is like a bad film, stuffed with anachronisms, produced in bad conditions by a tired, unimaginative regime, casting around for symbolic triggers which turn out to be worn out. So, this operatic “victory” looks more like a swansong and a decline, a striking sign of the political exhaustion of the ageing AKP-MHP coalition.

1Editor’s note: The series of attacks on 15 March 2019 on two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch, leaving 51 dead and 49 injured.

2The MHP leader is also interested in the cathedral at Ani (built at the end of the 9th century in the ancient Armenian capital by an architect who had repaired the dome of Hagia Sophia after it was damaged by an earthquake) where he organised a big nationalist-religious event in 2010 attended by 2,000 of his supporters.

3Literal translation of : Sürekli Vakıflar Tarihi Eserlere ve Çevreye Hizmet Derneği.