Monumental folly

A visitor standing under the spare Islamic beauty of Hagia Sophia’s central nave may spot a rare trinity. High on the apse is a jewel-like 9th century mosaic of the Virgin Mary and the Christ-child. Framing it are two of four recently uncovered mosaics of seraphims, angels originating in ancient Judaism. Below these are large wooden discs bearing elegant Quranic inscriptions, evidence of the last phase of the monument’s turbulent 1,660-year-old history.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul must be one of the few places on earth where depictions of the three great Abrahamic religions, now so deeply antagonistic, can be seen in one place.
How long this singular vision, the result of decades of careful restoration, will remain depends on a court verdict in a fortnight. The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, is hearing a case to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, part of Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s radical re-Islamisation programme.

For Mr Erdogan, Turkey’s president, sultan or dictator depending on your point of view, reconverting Hagia Sophia is central to his ostensible objective of recreating the glory of the Ottoman Empire (1299-1918). This was the key cathedral representing Christendom in the east, and the first place Mehmet II visited to thank Allah after he conquered the city.

The project has been gathering traction as Mr Erdogan, a former mayor of Istanbul, seeks to bolster his AKP party’s waning popularity. In a quirk worthy of an Orhan Pamuk novel, he is seeking to undo the political work of another dictator, Kemal Ataturk, that brilliant Thessaloniki-born military officer who is regarded as the father of modern Turkey. The conversion of the Hagia Sophia — a UNESCO world heritage site — into a museum in 1935 was one of many elements of Ataturk’s grand plan to drag the rump of the post-World War I Ottoman Empire kicking and screaming into the modern world. Many commentators believe that Mr Erdogan is riding the popular backlash to Ataturk’s aggressive secularism.

His creeping Islamic agenda is evident in the Sultan Ahmet Square in the old city. The park, a charming, bustling multicultural centre, is framed by Hagia Sophia and the exquisite 17th century Blue Mosque. Five times a day, loudspeakers clumsily attached to Hagia Sophia’s famous flying buttresses, echo those latched to the elegant minarets of the Blue Mosque calling the faithful to prayer. For me, it revived memories of that great jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie. Performing in a Calcutta suburb where Muslims, Christians and Hindus lived cheek by jowl, and where the sounds of the azaan mingled with the chaos of the marketplace, Dizzy, an unlikely Angel Gabriel, raised his trumpet to the night sky in a glorious impromptu riff of that call to the faithful.

Repurposing religious buildings to serve a conqueror’s religion was common enough in medieval Eurasia, a practice the Mughals imported to India (with controversial consequences in the 21st century). In Spain, this created the Mudejar style, an elegant amalgamation of Islamic and Renaissance Christian architectural traditions. The Mesquita in Cordoba is one eccentric example of the practical merger of temporal and spiritual symbols of power.

With Hagia Sophia, the concerns are whether the resumption of Islamic practice will erase — or cover up again — thousands of years of Christian culture and history. This was the cathedral in which the patriarch of Constantinople was dramatically excommunicated by the pope during the celebration of the Eucharist one July evening in 1054. This Great Schism between the churches of Rome and Constantinople occurred over — of all things — the precise nature of the Holy Spirit. This schism was one reason Constantine XI, the last Byzantine emperor, could count on little help from Christian Europe during Sultan Mehmet II’s siege. Ironically, Istanbul remains the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, a reflection of realpolitik practised by the Ottoman Empire in its heyday.

Precedent suggests that the fate of Hagia Sophia, as closely associated with Turkey as the Taj Mahal with India, is a foregone conclusion. Last year, the Council of State ruled that the Chora Monastery, where some of the finest frescoes and mosaics of Istanbul’s Byzantine past can be seen, could be re-converted into the mosque it had been under the Ottomans in the 16th century.

As with Hagia Sophia’s conversion 567 years ago, this exercise in cultural appropriation is more than symbolic. In power since 2003, Mr Erdogan, through outright repression of opposition (legitimised after a failed coup against him in 2016) and a manipulated referendum, has concentrated absolute power in his hands. In an uncomfortable echo of trends in India, intensified political religiosity is bound up with an upsurge in aggressive nationalism and has expanded in indirect proportion to economic growth. These moves may keep Mr Erdogan, who has built himself a taxpayer-funded 1,150-room palace in Ankara, in power. But Turkey will be poorer for it.

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