Istanbul is a city with a rich, diverse and fascinating history, and yet a bad memory. You can walk the streets for hours without stumbling across a single plaque or statue about the intricacies of its urban heritage. You can walk past an Ottoman cemetery without having a clue, if you can’t read the tombstones, of the people who were buried there. Turkey, in general, today is a society of collective amnesia. His whole relationship with the past is full of ruptures, convenient omissions, silences.
The result is a void in historical knowledge and understanding, which is then filled by Islamist-religious or ultranationalist interpretations of the past – or, too often, a dangerous combination of the two. And while it’s true that every nation-state has its official version of the past, written through the eyes of the victors, there is a difference between the way a democracy and a non-democracy record their stories.
In a functioning democracy, you may encounter a multiplicity of stories – stories and its stories – rather than a single narrative. You can walk into a bookstore and buy books that give a voice to the silences, illuminate what the mainstream narrative wants you to forget. The authors of these books, or the journalists behind them, are neither arrested nor prosecuted.
In my native Turkey, however, the dominant narrative of the story screams extremely loudly, silencing everything else. The way history is taught in school and propagated through popular culture systematically erases minorities, multiplicities and truths: What was life like for women in the Ottoman Empire? Or for the slaves? Or for Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Alevis, Roma, Kurds, heterodox mystics? Anyone who has been pushed to the periphery; how were their stories?
It is in this context that we must reflect on the recent decision of the Turkish government to transform Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
An architectural, cultural and artistic masterpiece, Hagia Sophia is unique in many ways. It also has enormous symbolic value. Built during the Byzantine Empire as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, it was completed with remarkable speed in 537, in just under six years. Such was the desire of the Emperor Justinian to prove his greatness to the world, that he would have exclaimed, entering the completed building: âOh Solomon! I have surpassed you.
It remained an Eastern Orthodox church for almost 900 years (except for a brief period when the Crusaders converted it to a Catholic church) until the Ottoman Turks captured Istanbul in 1453. After the conquest of the city, Sultan Fatih turned it into a mosque, and so it remained for about 480 years. Forced conversions of this kind did not take place only in Istanbul. From Spain to Greece, there are many mosques which have been converted into churches; the Grande Mezquita in Cordoba is a prime example. What was unusual about Hagia Sophia was that in 1934, under AtatÃ¼rk, with Turkey becoming a modern nation state, the historic building was transformed into a museum, a secular space. And this is the legacy that Erdogan is now determined to reverse.
The interior of Hagia Sophia, filled with exquisite works of art, is just as breathtaking as its architecture. The Byzantines, who saw themselves as the natural successors of ancient Rome, decorated the site with precious mosaics highlighting their claim. The one who has always impressed me the most is the Empress Zoe, with her big eyes, her impressive nose and her keen intelligence; a powerful ruling wife who had three husbands (requiring the tiles to have their faces changed each time to match). Another is that of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ in her lap. In addition to these elaborate Byzantine mosaics, beautiful works of Islamic calligraphy were added. Above the massive pillars, a verse from the Koran: âAllah is the light of the heavens and the earth. They all live in the same space.
And that was the remarkable peculiarity of Hagia Sophia. Not what it had been as a church, not what it had been as a mosque, but the fact that it had, throughout its trajectory, brought together various cultures, faith and secularism, cosmopolitan heritage and local history, weaving religion, politics, culture. and art. It was this complex story that was put aside on Friday, July 10, when President Erdogan ordered the building open for Muslim prayers after a court revoked its museum status. The 1,500-year-old building, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was once managed by the Ministry of Culture, but is now delegated to the Directorate of Religious Affairs.
A majority of the Turkish public believe the political gain lies behind the decision to stir up debate on the subject, according to a Metropoll poll. Turkey’s economy, in decline for so long, has been weighed down further by rising unemployment and the coronavirus crisis, and with this latest move President Erdogan appears to be appealing to his traditional base. âThe Turkish nation’s right to Hagia Sophia is no less than that of those who built it 1,500 years ago; it’s even bigger, âhe reportedly said in a speech to the nation about the announcement, many of which on social media later. hail the decision as a “second conquest”. Some opposition leaders even joined the chorus saying they would like to attend the first prayer.
Meanwhile, Turkish minorities, secularists, liberals and progressives watch with heavy hearts. Armenian-Turkish MP Garo Paylan wrote on Instagram: It is “a sad day for Christians and for all who believe in a pluralist Turkey”. Erdogan “cannot give bread to the people, and he gives more radicalism to the Muslim majority,” he added in an interview with NBC News. Even before the decision was announced, Faik Ozturk, spokesperson for Turkey’s main opposition party, noted that those who publicly criticized the proposal risked being branded traitors to their nation.
But none of this changes the fact that Hagia Sophia is older than any government. This gem of architecture, art and history does not belong to any tribe or political party, left or right. Hagia Sophia belongs to both Christians and Muslims. And more than that, it belongs to all of humanity. The present generation of Turks does not have it; we can only be its provisional guardians for the future. This unique building, with all its stories, should therefore have remained a museum, a secular space, its massive doors open to all, to people of all faiths and none, because its dome is large enough to accommodate all of humanity.
Elif Shafak’s most recent novel is “10 minutes 38 seconds in this strange world” (Viking)