Interview: Could the former basilica of Hagia Sophia again become a mosque?
The Great Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in the Turkish capital of Istanbul, was once the center of Eastern Orthodoxy, before being transformed into a mosque, and subsequently into a museum. On March 23, 2020, the Muslim call to prayer was once again heard in this former Byzantine basilica, a building which has been officially secular since 1934, though it remains the symbolic center of the Greek Orthodox faith.
In order to decipher the motivation behind this development, ACN spoke to Etienne Copeaux, a historian of modern Turkey. As a former fellow of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies (Institut français d’études anatoliennes) in Istanbul and a former researcher at the CNRS
How do you explain the demand by Muslims to be allowed to pray again in Hagia Sophia?
The demand that this sixth-century Basilica again become a place of Islamic worship has been strong ever since the 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
Does the demand for Islamic prayer inside Hagia Sophia reflect a rejection of the secular society envisaged by Atatürk?
The commemoration in 1953, which was initially modest enough, occurred during an anti-secularist period, a time that saw a return to the religious dimension under the government of the democratic party of Adnan Menderes (1950-1960), who in 1956 declared: “The Turkish nation is Muslim.”
When political Islam returned to power, from June 1996 to June 1997, the Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan promised those who voted for him that the basilica would be returned to Islam. However, he did not remain in power long enough to accomplish this project.
But during approximately the same era, from 1994 to 1998, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul, and he made the same promises.
In 2018, Erdogan, now as Turkish president, recited the first verse of the Koran went inside Hagia Sophia, and in March 2019 he declared his wish to change its status from that of a museum into a mosque.
How might the Christians of Turkey react?
The “Christian people’ of Turkey—and above all the remnant of the Orthodox population, the great majority of whom were expelled in waves, in 1914, then in 1955 and in 1964 are extremely cautious, given what they have been through. Indeed, the constant exhortations to be careful are even repeated insistently by the religious authorities: ‘don’t make waves, don’t ever complain…’
The views of the Orthodox Christians of Turkey can only be presented via the official channels of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. But as experience has shown, the encounters between the Patriarch and the Turkish authorities are often very formal, very diplomatic.
You can read the whole interview here.