Hagia Sophia, the great shrine that had successively served Christianity and Islam, God and Allah, for 1,400 years, when converted into a Byzantine Ottoman museum, standing at the centre of the Turkish Republic, rightly became a symbol of fusion between the civilisations of East and West.
Earlier, Sultan Mehmet II converted the iconic church ~ having the largest uninterrupted interior space in the world before the construction of the Pantheon of Rome, constructed under the emperor Justinian in the sixth century A.D ~ into a mosque. The Ottomans lost no time in transforming the most significant Christian churches of the city as a sign of the change in suzerainty, among which, the mosque of Hagia Sophia, known in Turkish as Aya Sofya, remained the main ceremonial mosque of the empire until the twentieth century.
Hagia Sophia had an enormous significance for Ottoman culture that transformed its semantics dramatically after the conquest of Istanbul by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453.
When Justinian built the Church of Hagia Sophia it was done to commemorate the triumph of Christianity over paganism. The transformation of the Church of Hagia Sophia into a mosque signified the conquest of Islam over Christianity. Hagia Sophia was a source of motivation for Ottoman sultans even before the conquest of Istanbul (as much as it was important to Christians even after the conquest of Istanbul) and this connection with the Islamic past served to legitimise the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in the fifteenth century.
The Ottoman preoccupation with Hagia Sophia came to a turning point with the construction of the Selimiye Mosque. But, the significance of the recent act of reconversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque undertaken by President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan lies elsewhere.
Just in case we consider this act of reconversion as a significant symbolic act, we may draw upon what Gülrü Necipoglu, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art, points out, that the symbolism of Mehmet the Conqueror’s transformation of the cathedral, in conjunction with his maintenance of the city’s name, merged the classical imperial tradition with “the Turko-Islamic heritage of universal sovereignty and revived (it) precisely at the moment when the classical past was being rediscovered in another part of the Mediterranean world, Renaissance Italy.”
With the development of humanism during the Renaissance, western Europe was in the process of inextricably linking itself with the ancient world, especially the pre- Christian Roman Empire and, to the extent that it had contributed to Roman culture, ancient Greece.
With his interest in forging links with the Roman Empire, Mehmet the Conqueror was very much a man of his time. One might wonder what could be Erdogan’s impulse.
By seeking to change the status of what had originally been the most recognisable symbol of modern Istanbul, a source of wonder and fascination since its sixth-century construction, Erdogan has betrayed his revanchism motivated by a deep-rooted hostility toward the ways of his illustrious predecessor Mustafa Kemal Atatürk which is perfectly in accord with how he had systematically dismantled Ataturk’s system by using the very tools that the country’s founding elites armed him with: state institutions and top-down social engineering – both hallmarks of Ataturk’s reforms.
Often hailed as an “anti-Ataturk Ataturk”, Erdogan, by using Ataturk’s means and methods to outrival even Ataturk, and by replacing Atatürk’s militant secularism with a militant sectarianism has been quite successful in transforming his country that discriminates against citizens who do not first and foremost identify through Islam, more specifically conservative Sunni Islam, the branch to which Erdogan belongs.
Now that Turkey is split almost down the middle between pro- and anti-Erdogan camps, one may be prompted to compare Turkey with India, divided between pro-and anti- Modi camps, only to discover similarities galore, though any comparison might appear purely co-incidental, but not unintended.
How come Erdogan’s persona and context are important?
Because it might help us to understand his motive behind the reconversion. Armed with a democratic mandate, he has used his popularity only to fritter away democratic checks and balances, including the media and the courts. He had come down heavily on his opponents and locked up dissidents and remained loyal only to his conservative and Islamist base and in order to prevent power from running out of his hands, he made sure that the political playing field remains uneven.
So the church-mosque-museum- mosque course for Hagia Sophia is sadly a reflection of how pieces of architecture often become symbols of territoriality.
If the history of Turkey is an amalgam of its Christian, Islamic, and secular past, what remains hidden is the fundamental, right-wing character of the repression and state violence – the right-wing continuity from Kemalists to Islamists – in Turkey.
If the secularist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, is a symbol to represent putative secularist ambitions of the erstwhile so-called Kemalist state elite, the Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan, superficially, represents his antithesis by his adherence to the Islamist ideology of its rulers.
This tendency to change or alter our past, or disown our mixed heritage or to take only a partial view of history is manifest in our country. Those who engage in it are called history sheeters. A city or town is known by different categories of signifiers.
Throughout its history, Constantinople and later Istanbul had always been home to people of different religions and denominations. It is made of as much as its iconic signifiers such as its heroes, saints or celebrities and behavioural signifiers such as rituals, ceremonies, festivals or parades as of its discursive signifiers that include a wide range of ‘urban images and narratives’ provided by movies, novels, urban legends, myths and so on.
A statue as magnificent as Hagia Sophia belongs to the category of material signifiers that include both artificial and natural landscapes like statues or architecture. The symbolism within the city of Istanbul is predominantly manipulated by architecture and monuments, and its unique mix of historic architecture and contemporary events, beautiful museums with an international charisma, a huge gastronomic pallet, not to speak of perfect facilities to spend the night and a vibrant nightlife.
Turkey faced a couple of major terrorist attacks in 2016 that struck at the very core of its cosmopolitan foundation seeking to attack the very signifiers that define the city which was accompanied by a failed coup, a nationwide crackdown on freedom of Press and political dissent, and an increasingly autocratic reign by Erdogan.
To pin it down, Hagia Sophia’s shifting status points to a chasm between Ataturk (and the late Ottoman sultans) who envisioned Turkey as European and Erdogan who steered the country toward the Middle East summoning Islamist solidarity in foreign policy to make Turkey a great regional power.
Already the latter’s reign has lasted longer than that of Atatürk, who founded and ruled the modern Turkish Republic for fifteen years from 1923 to 1938. Erdogan has given himself the historic task of reversing Atatürk’s work and reviving the empire much like our current Prime Minister has entrusted himself the task of bulldozing everything that is Nehruvian along the way.
Erdogan is shrewd enough to understand how non-Western countries such as India, Indonesia and now, of course, Arab countries, are struggling to define a constitutional system under which both secular and religious citizens can live and prosper, as Modi is able to detect the pitfalls of the Nehruvian consensus and his idea of secularism.
Erdogan’s trajectory from a conservative Islamist, to a moderate Islamist to finally a new kind of sultan, gradually usurping traditional authoritarian systems in society and in the state as well as creating new kinds of institutions in both state and society to consolidate his power again may find resonance closer home.
As Erdogan’s followers see him as the chosen one for the nation not only of the Turks, but also for Muslims, appellations such as “Hindu Hriday Samrat” in India can be traced to the same spirit of authoritarian majoritarianism.
After serving as the patriarchal symbol of Eastern Christendom for nearly a millennium, Hagia Sophia was transformed into the foremost imperial mosque of Ottoman Istanbul until its brief interregnum as a museum. Therefore, Erdogan’s reconversion of Hagia Sophia is an act of prizing symbol over substance, which, in this case is his quality of questionable governance and a tattered economy, as in India the subject matter of the construction of a Ram temple, before the verdict of the apex court, has always been tomtommed as a majoritarian movement.
But symbols, however powerful, can often mislead. The narrative of Turkey is not essentially a war between a ‘westernising’ state and the popular masses defending their culture and religion. Perhaps a careful class analysis will help to explain Turkey’s dichotomy historically torn between militant secularism and authoritarian Islamism neither of which can be imposed by law or by gunpoint.
The lesson that we may draw is that revanchists in India ~ who have a tendency to turn their back against the huge architectural programmes undertaken not only in Agra but also in Delhi, Lahore, Ajmer, and Allahabad that reflected the wealth, artistic talent, and administrative acumen available to the Mughal rulers ~ cannot alter India’s past, for instance, by ‘reclaiming’ the Taj Mahal from its Islamic past.
The great glory is in the acceptance of our eclectic past and our synthetic culture.
The writer is a Kolkata based commentator on politics, development and cultural issues