Hagia Sophia, once Eastern Christianity’s greatest cathedral, is undoubtedly one of the most important monuments in today’s Istanbul.
Steeped in Byzantine history, it served as one of the largest cathedrals in the world, the center of Orthodoxy for nearly a millennium, and then a mosque for another five centuries under the Ottomans and the nascent Turkish republic.
Hagia Sophia is of unquestioned importance to the Greek people as the sublime Byzantine church of their ancestors, to Orthodox Christians as the former spiritual center of Orthodoxy — and to Turks as once one of their great mosques.
But today, Hagia Sophia is a symbol of compromise; today, despite its spiritual significance, Hagia Sophia is a secular museum, belonging to no religion. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, purposefully secularized Hagia Sophia as a compromise, to build bridges between Turkey and its Balkan neighbors.
Yet Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is now intent on destroying this compromise. Having called for the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque on several occasions in the past few years, earlier in June Erdoğan asked for a comprehensive study on how to undertake this process.
On July 2, Turkey’s Council of State will decide if the monument can be re-converted back into a mosque. Erdoğan’s government has been gradually building towards such a move for some time now.
The first Muslim prayers in Hagia Sophia since 1935 were held in 2016. In March of 2020, Muslim prayers were recited in the great edifice once again. Then, on May 29, the anniversary of the fall of Byzantine Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks, passages from the Quran were read inside the building in celebration.
These actions have outraged the Greek government, and the planned conversion of Hagia Sophia has received strong backlash from major members of the international community, including the United States and Russia.
Erdoğan is no stranger to controversy in international affairs. As of June 2020, Turkish forces are on the ground in Syria, enmeshed in that country’s ever-continuing civil war. At the same time, since the end of 2019, Turkey has been actively engaged in plans with Libya to effectively take control over a significant piece of maritime territory from Greece and Cyprus.
In these cases, at least, Turkey gains a tangible benefit from such action, even if it comes at enormous risks in the realm of foreign affairs.
But there is little strategic value to converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque; the main potential benefit being to solidifyvotes for Erdoğan’s AK Parti. Yet the votes that it would likely garner are those of religious conservatives in Turkey, who already form the bulwark of AK Parti support.
A Turkish political rival, İYİ Party chair Meral Akşener, suggested that the Hagia Sophia conversion is just an artificial crisis to distract from a worsening Turkish economy.
Erdoğan has not shied away from bold moves in the past, but the conversion of Hagia Sophia is particularly risky, for little benefit, given the justifiable outrage of all Orthodox Christendom.
Erdoğan’s government has been gradually converting former Orthodox churches that were once museums back into mosques. The Hagia Sophia in Trabzon was converted back in 2013, and the Chora Church (Kariye Cami) was converted back at the end of 2019. But taking over the greatest Hagia Sophia, in what was for so long the Byzantine capital, would undoubtedly be the biggest and riskiest move of all.
Turkey, flouting foreign outrage, has insisted that the status of the Hagia Sophia is an internal matter. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has flatly stated that the monument’s status is a matter of national sovereignty, not an international matter.
Yet Turkey has demonstrated that it fully aware of the international and historical importance of Hagia Sophia. This again begs the question of how the conversion would be worth this much backlash and risk.
While condemnation of the planned conversion of Hagia Sophia has been widespread, Turkish-Greek relations meanwhile have been especially troublesome.
Erdoğan has sharply and repeatedly elevated tensions with Greece over the past few years. He has done this through overt political maneuvers, including violations of Greek airspace, sending refugees to Greece’s borders, and claiming to take Greek maritime territory through an agreement with Libya.
But Erdoğan has also repeatedly inflamed Greek historical memory, making symbolic but powerful statements which tactlessly bring to the fore the many painful events in Greek-Turkish history.
The threatened conversion of Hagia Sophia is one piece of this broader theme, but it is perhaps a move too far.
Turkey certainly knows its history and the risks and benefits of most of its international stratagems. Ignoring them, in the case of Hagia Sophia, and risking so much for such little gain, is simply foolhardy.
*Michael Goodyear has a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and an A.B. in History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Byzantine history. He has been published in a variety of academic and general-interest publications on history and law, including Le Monde Diplomatique, The Medieval Magazine, and the Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law.