The Fate of Hagia Sophia
Will Hagia Sophia’s Christian heritage survive under President Erdoğan’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ vision?
Should art that offends the majority of its viewers it be covered or whitewashed? Should art that conveys a message that contradicts the values and beliefs of a majority be removed or relocated? The current consensus appears to favour an answer of “yes” to both questions, if they are asked of statues of Confederate generals, slave traders or dictators. But what if they are asked of the exquisite mosaics that adorn one of the world’s oldest and finest architectural monuments, which has stood for 1500 years as a church, mosque, and museum?
On 10 July, the Turkish Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, ruled that the conversion of a mosque into a museum in 1934 was illegal. The mosque in question is known in Turkish as Ayasofya Camii, and to secular Turks and others as the Museum of Hagia Sophia. Immediately, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the structure would once again serve as a mosque, with prayers commencing on 24 July. That happens to be the date on which the borders of modern Turkey were established by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923. President Erdoğan has frequently criticized that treaty, which recognised and ratified the achievements of Mustafa Kemal “Atatürk”, the secular founder of the modern Turkish state.
In his announcement of 10 July, President Erdoğan swore to protect Ayasofya as the “common heritage of humankind” even as “after 86 years, it will serve its purpose again”. He did not reject the building’s former status as a church, which is part of its “common heritage”, but rather placed emphasis on a specific, “illegal” action taken in 1934. In the years before this action, while Ayasofya was still a mosque, Mustafa Kemal had taken a personal interest in the conservation of its mosaics. He invited the driving force behind the conservation project, Thomas Whittemore, to visit his farm near Ankara. The decision by the Turkish Council of Ministers to secularize Ayasofya was taken on the very same day, 24 November 1934, that it declared Mustafa Kemal to be “Atatürk”, “Father of Turks”. Atatürk was among the new museum’s earliest visitors, travelling especially from Ankara in February 1935. Atatürk would become an icon and his image dominated public spaces across Turkey until the rise of Erdoğan and the AKP party.
Following Erdoğan’s 10 July announcement, a Turkish government spokesman clarified that “As our ancestors protected the icons there, they will continue to be protected”. In fact, that protection involved covering the mosaics with plaster and whitewash for several centuries before they were uncovered in the systematic campaign that Whittemore started and which continued until very recently. Any visitor to the museum over the past several decades will very likely have encountered huge scaffolds standing in the middle of the dome. Essential stabilization and conservation of the entire structure has been undertaken sporadically, allegedly through lack of funding, even as millions of foreign visitors have joined long queues to pay high entrance charges. These fees will no longer be charged and far fewer tourists will be admitted to the building. These are not necessarily bad developments for a fragile, ancient building.
Designed and constructed for Emperor Justinian by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, Hagia Sophia took eight years and 10,000 workers to build, between CE 532 and 540. With an interior space of more than 250,000 m3, it was the greatest single building ever to have been constructed. It was not a basilica, the preferred design for churches between the second and sixth centuries, but was domed.
The dome was functional and symbolic, held to mirror heaven, with forty windows for flooding it with light. As a space designed for a new liturgy, which featured antiphonal chant – two choir sections chanted alternately across the space – the dome captured sound and magnified it, creating a “wet” sound that washed across and immersed worshippers. Reverberation of music and sound in the dome lasts up to 11 seconds, quite opposite to the effect desired and achieved in a modern concert hall, where a note reverberates only for 2-3 seconds and dampers are employed to reduce vibration.
This very dome, created to highlight the sounds and sights of Christian worship, gave the essential form to subsequent mosque structures. Mosques today are domed because Hagia Sophia was domed. The stunning Sultanahmet Camii, the “Blue Mosque”, was built to surpass Hagia Sophia’s dome, which it does by supporting its central dome without the need for massive piers and “pendentives”.
Hagia Sophia, which originally featured none of its many external retaining walls and buttresses, is particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Istanbul sits on an active tectonic fault and earthquakes have damaged the building and its dome many times. Within decades of its completion, the dome fell as it was under repair, crushing the ciborium and altar beneath. After another reconstruction in the ninth century the apse was given its dominating, refulgent mosaic of the Mother of God (Theotokos) seated holding the infant Christ in her lap.
Initial reports on the Turkish court’s decision have identified a threat to the building’s status as a UNESCO “World Heritage Site”. Erdoğan acknowledged as much in his comments on the “common heritage of humankind”. Hagia Sophia is not a “World Heritage Site” it itself, but is embraced within the enormous “Historic Areas of Istanbul”, that encompasses four discrete regions of the city. The largest of these four areas is the “Istanbul Land Walls Area”, that stretches from the Golden Horn to the Marmara Sea, taking in the Theodosian Land Walls, built a century before Hagia Sophia, and a large swathe of land either side of the walls. The second largest of the four areas is the “Sultanahmet Urban Archaeological Component Area”, which includes Topkapı Palace and the “Blue Mosque”, as well as Hagia Sophia between them. It also takes in the whole site of the Great Palace, established for Constantine the Great and developed by most of his successors, the hippodrome with its towering “Sphendone.”
UNESCO issued a statement that the “Director-General of UNESCO deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, to change the status of Hagia Sophia”. It further noted that “States have an obligation to ensure that modifications do not affect the Outstanding Universal Value of inscribed sites on their territories”, and that “UNESCO must be given prior notice of any such modifications, which, if necessary, are then examined by the World Heritage Committee”. The committee does not move quickly. Its last annual meeting was held in Baku in July 2019, and this year’s meeting, due to be held 29 June to 9 July in Fuzhou, China, has been postponed until further notice. At that meeting, it was due to consider a summary report on the “Historical Areas of Istanbul”.
UNESCO’S concern over “modifications” is code for the fate of Christian art within the building. It will be addressed politely by the same efficient cultural heritage officials who have handled Turkey’s paperwork since 1985. Meanwhile, the hint of encroachment on Turkish sovereignty by an external agency, and statements by various national governments opposed to the decision, has offered the opportunity for some nationalistic posturing. Like the decision, this is aimed at a domestic audience. For many supporters of Erdoğan, he has finally delivered on a promise, when for years he preferred to keep the issue at a low simmer, stoking the fire when his hold on power appeared to weaken.
UNESCO’s allegation that Turkey acted “without prior discussion” may be formally correct, but the conversation about Hagia Sophia has been taking place for decades. Furthermore, the court’s decision was widely predicted and follows precedent. Last November, the same court ruled that a smaller domed museum – formerly the Chora Monastery, then the Kariye Mosque – should once again a serve as a mosque. Kariye stands in a district of the city near the antique land walls that is home to a large devout Muslim community, most devoted supporters of Erdoğan. It is also part of the UNESCO inscribed “Istanbul Land Walls Area”, and adorned with Christian mosaics and frescoes that rival those of Hagia Sophia in their beauty and sophistication. These were restored from 1948, again at the initiative of Whittemore and with Atatürk’s permission. They remain on view, although not easily, and their fate has become a source of concern and speculation.
Hagia Sophia is not needed as a mosque, of course, nor will it be the city’s largest. Istanbul is full of huge imperial foundations that can accommodate thousands at prayer, including the “Blue Mosque” and the city’s third largest WHO site, the “Sulemaniye Mosque”. Opening Ayasofya to the faithful is a political decision intended to celebrate a “Neo-Ottoman” vision that President Erdoğan has promoted successfully for two decades. It celebrates the Ottoman conquest of the city of Constantinople on 29 May 1453. Legend holds that Mehmed II Fatih, “The Conqueror”, held Friday prayers in Ayasofya three days after the city fell. On 29 May 2020, days before the court’s decision, the 48th chapter of the Quran, the “Conquest Surah”, was recited in Ayasofya, part of a grand celebration.
The twenty-one-year-old Mehmed Fatih was no iconoclast, as is evident from the preservation of the mosaics of Hagia Sophia under plaster from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. Mehmed brought objects of pagan art and Christian devotion within his palace, where they might neither offend nor provoke those who did not share his own love of classical art and architecture, literature, and history. Mehmed had, as a young man, produced his own sketches, some of which have been preserved in a school notebook. His face appeared on numerous medallions produced by Italian artists. His collection of antiquities could be observed only by those whom he invited into the palace, which in time included Gentile Bellini, apparently commissioned to produce some erotica for the sultan, and an icon of the Virgin and infant Christ to accompany the remarkable collection of Christian relics. Nine benches from the hippodrome stands were provided so that his guests might rest between perusing his antiquities, which included dozens of statues and several marble sarcophagi that once housed the bodies of Byzantine emperors.
Mehmet’s pious son and successor, Bayezid II, questioned his father’s devotion to Islam. In a letter of 1519 sent to Michelangelo from Turkey, Tomaso di Tolfo lamented that Bayezid took “no delight in figures of any sort; indeed he hated them.”
There are good reasons to believe that President Erdoğan has more in common with Mehmed than Bayezid, and that he will preserve the mosaics of Hagia Sophia behind screens and curtains, veiling them during prayers. But there are legitimate fears that this will harm the delicate works of art, trapping humidity and threatening mechanical damage.
Still, they have survived for centuries despite the threat of earthquakes, fires, and the attention of authoritarian rulers. This latest stage in their history reveals their continued importance and vitality.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe