Hagia Sofia: Changing Hands of History

By Syed Sharfuddin*

In ancient times monarchs and emperors relied on the display of sheer power and its outward symbols such as land, property, buildings and cattle to command servitude and obedience from their subjects. In traditional societies foreign expeditions were a legitimate means of acquiring additional revenue and resources to pay for security and loyalty. That world order of sorts was entirely power based. The king had the final say and what he said was the law. Might was right. The king owned land (mulk) and men. He rewarded his subjects for their bravery in battlefield or took away their lives for their mistakes and omissions. The king was the head of the executive, legislature and judiciary. The lords under the king owned peasants and their chattels. In that world order, it was obligatory for the subjects of a conquered nation to pay tributes and taxes and embrace the customs, language and religion of the victor even if he did not force them to do so. Sometimes power and moral values were combined to symbolise the victory of truth over falsehood. This is how the Pharaohs ruled ancient Egypt. When their power weakened, the Hebrews accepted the religion of Moses and prospered in the kingdoms of David, Solomon and Joseph. This is how a pagan Rome disowned its gods and goddesses to embrace Christianity under the reign of Emperor Constantine I during 306-337 CE. This is also how Islam spread in the Arabian and North African lands when Muslims expanded their faith and influence through trade and foreign expeditions. In the newly discovered world of American hinterland, the doctrine of manifest destiny justified the forced conversion of Amerindians to Christianity by European missionaries.

Then came the next world order in the so called civilised world in which the conquered subjects were given the freedom to keep their cultural practices, religion and language but show complete allegiance to their new rulers, whether it comprised a king, an oligarchy or a ruling class. However, as part of asserting his sovereignty, the new monarch, and the ruling class for that matter, either destroyed the physical symbols of the old order they defeated such as palaces, monuments and worship places or acquired these as their own. Over time, the losing nation also lost its cultural values and icons, which merged with the superior culture of the new rulers. Sometimes, the merger resulted in a hybrid culture retaining some of the stronger and popular features of the vanquished people.

During the Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula, architecture was used as a symbol of political power and cultural dominance over the locals. The Umayyad Caliph, Abdul Rahman, built the grand mosque of Cordova and Madinat al Zahra as symbols of his power and grandeur. But when Muslim rule ended in Spain and was replaced by Christian rulers, they took possession of Muslim icons and claimed these as their own. The grand mosque of Cordova was converted into a cathedral. It never reverted to its original status.

The Almohids who succeeded the Umayyads in Spain did not follow their predecessors’ tradition of constructing grand architectural monuments. Instead, they built palaces and mosques made of bricks in simple designs. The great mosque of Seville was built by a Spanish builder, Ahmad bin Baso on the orders of Almohid Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf (1163 to 1184 CE). Ahmad Baso was a master mason from Andalusia and had built many buildings for the Almohids in Cordova and Gibraltar. The mosque took ten years to complete in 1198. The base of its tall minaret served as the place of Azan. However, after the defeat of the Almohids in 1247 CE, the successor Christian ruler, Alfonso X, converted this mosque into a cathedral and ordered that the minaret of the mosque be used as the bell tower. The minaret still survives in Seville and is known as La Giralda. Alfonso X and his family are buried in the grounds of the old mosque, which was converted into a cathedral.

Alfonso X also removed Muslims from positions of power and authority in Seville and brought in the hitherto cast away Jews to replace them. They settled in areas vacated by the Muslims, and formed colonies in Barrios San Bartolommeo, Santa Maria la Blanca and Santa Cruz. Alfonso X also designated three mosques to be converted into synagogues. These Muslim worship places never returned to their original state in Christian Spain. In 2020, a retired Muslim footballer from Spain, Oumar Kanoute raised $1 million on an online fundraising campaign to build the first purpose built mosque and a Muslim cultural centre in Seville in over 800 years.

When Sultan Mehmet II, also known as Mehmet the Great, defeated the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI and conquered Constantinople in 1453, he changed the name of the conquered city to Istanbul and also converted its famous cathedral Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Documents relating to the archives of the building show that Sultan Mehmet II paid compensation to the priests of Hagia Sofia in order to meet the Islamic provision that no land or building can be used as a mosque unless its owners have been paid its sale price in full settlement of any claim. Sultan Mehmet II was under no obligation to do this because the rules of war in those times allowed the victor to claim all fallen properties as war booty. When he turned the historic building into a mosque, he also established a charitable foundation, built a market, an inn and a public bath, and added shops in the surrounding areas to form part of a trust to cover Hagia Sofia’s running expenses.

Hagia Sophia was built in 537 CE and served as the cathedral of the Eastern (Greek) Orthodox Christendom. During this period it also served as the cathedral of the Roman Catholics from 1204 to 1261. Hagia Sophia held the status of a mosque from 1453 to 1934. In 1934 it was turned into a museum in order to generate income to pay for the restoration of the ancient edifice. However, as the fortunes of the Ottomans waned with the decline of their power, the rising maintenance expenses of Hagia Sofia became difficult to meet from the income of the trust. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire the new Turkish Republic looked for ways to raise funds for the maintenance of the historic monument, which had acquired a sacred status also for the Turkish Muslims in addition to its Christian minority. Following approval by the founder of Turkey Gazi Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1934, the iconic building was officially declared a museum in February 1935. From 1935 to 2020 it operated as a museum containing some of the most ancient frescos, statues and religious symbols of Orthodox Christianity preserved by Turkey.

The phenomena of the religious landmarks of a fallen dynasty becoming the worship places of the successor regime of another faith were not unusual for Turkey. It was observed all over the world in keeping with the old tradition. In India, the ancient Babri mosque of Ayodhya built in 1528 on the orders of the first Moghul Emperor Babar, continued to serve the local Muslims for over four centuries until India’s independence in 1947. Two years after the independence of India, the Hindus claimed that Babri mosque was constructed on a plot of land, which was the sacred birthplace of their god Ram. In 1992 the Babri mosque was attacked and burnt down by Hindu fanatics. Indian courts remained seized of this matter for nearly seventy years. In November 2019 the Indian Supreme Court ruled that a Hindu temple should be built on the site of the fallen Babri mosque and Muslims should be given an alternate site to build a new mosque.

The Ketchaoua mosque in Algiers, which was constructed by the Ottomans around 1516 and was further expanded in 1792 by Dye Hassan Pasha was acquired by the invading French armies in Algeria in 1830 and converted into a cathedral in 1832. It was used as a church for the next 130 years. In 1962, after Algeria gained independence from the French, the Algerian people reclaimed the cathedral and converted it back into a mosque.

Islamic art and architecture in Seville, the Balkans and Russia, which had earlier witnessed Muslim domination, met the same fate. These monuments were acquired by the new rulers and absorbed in their religious and cultural traditions as part of their heritage.

A new international order was adopted by the allied powers after the end of the second-world war. This new order established the United Nations and the Bretton Woods System and sought to adjust to the new realities of maintaining world peace, decolonisation and rise of nation states. Countries in the new international order were made to sign new international conventions and protocols governing the laws of war and peace, human rights and conduct of inter-state relations. Freedom of religion and safeguarding the places of worship of minority communities became part of the international human rights instruments and national laws of many new republics. Along with these new norms of international conduct, the principles of sovereignty, political independence, non-interference in the internal affairs of another country and cooperation for peace also became the salient features of this new world order.

It is unwise to divide history in different silos and apply our present value system to comment on them. What happened centuries ago as part of the evolution of human development, such as large scale conquests, acquisitions, slavery and missionary expeditions cannot be judged in the light of our present day norms, in the same way as we wouldn’t want the future generations to find us at fault for following the value system we observe today as a result of our collective human experience. People who find the Ottoman, Spanish, French and Moghul acquisitions in ancient times wrong forget that they are judging the past from the advantage of hindsight and under completely different circumstances and rules of human existence. Similarly, those who are unhappy with the Turkish court’s decision restoring the status of Hagia Sofia today are in a denial of the past. They need to acknowledge that Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for over five centuries prior to 1934 in keeping with the laws of war prevalent in Europe in those times. Even when the post-world war new international order was drawn up, states were not required to return the ancient buildings and worship places acquired through foreign conquests to their rightful but dispossessed heirs. Indeed it is a credit to Turkey for preserving the historic sites and monuments of ancient faiths and cultures and safeguarding these as the most valuable treasure of its rich cultural and historic collection.

The question whether the Turkish cabinet’s 1934 decision was a correct decision, which has been annulled by the 2020 ruling of a Turkish court, is irrelevant. Turkey is a sovereign democratic and independent country and its judiciary has overturned the decision of a previous Turkish legislature. What is important is that since 1453, Hagia Sophia has not been used as a cathedral. Whether the people of Turkey keep it as a museum or use it as a mosque or combine the two functions in a new arrangement is not going to make Hagia Sophia a cathedral again. It is no surprise therefore that the dissenting voices against the Hagia Sophia decision are coming from the same quarters who are not prepared to give any space to political Islam in democratic governance. In many countries, public polls show how popular opinion changes over time. There is no contradiction in the two decisions taken by Turkey about Hagia Sofia in 1934 and 2020; 85 years ago it suited Turkey to declare this historic monument a museum; now it suites Turkey to reclaim Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

The people of Turkey had always wanted Hagia Sophia to be restored to the status of a mosque. Throughout Turkey’s modern history it remained a controversial subject. The court ruling does not call for removing Christian symbols from the historic building, including the large hall where five times prayers will be performed by visiting Muslim tourists and locals from 24 July. The building will continue to remain open for foreign tourists as before. The frescos of Holy Mary and archangel Gabriel, which are located in the direction of the Qibla will be made invisible through the use of lasers when the prayers are said. Jesus, Mary and Gabriel are also considered holy in Islam although Islamic tradition requires that due to their revered status they should not be physically depicted in any art form using conjecture.

By restoring the status of Hagia Sophia back to the mosque and still deciding to keep it open for foreign tourists with all the historic icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in place as before, Turkey has once again shown to the world that secular Muslim Islam is totally compatible with the international values of religious harmony and inter-faith tolerance, human rights and democratic values. It has also left an important question mark on other pluralistic societies where Muslims are in minority, about how the majority population in those countries treats its religious minorities and worship places, and to what extent those countries are prepared to reconcile with a past, with which they may feel uncomfortable, but which they cannot blot out from their history.
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*Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs, Commonwealth Secretariat, London, UK (2000-2006). He also served as CEO of Muslim Aid, UK from 2010-2014. He can be reached at sharaf.sharfuddin@gmail.com