The decision to revert Hagia Sophia to a mosque has reintroduced century-old questions that relate directly to present-day society and the changes we are going through.
The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque was the last refuge for many of the people of Constantinople following the collapse of the city’s defenses. Its fall was the culmination of the battle between two empires at a time when the culture of eradication of the vanquished by the victors was the accepted norm. The women, children, elderly, sick and wounded who took refuge in Hagia Sophia were no doubt silently asking Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II “What fate do you have in store for us?” – and they were in no doubt expecting the worst. At that decisive moment, the hand of history was poised to record the ensuing events for posterity.
The amnesty declared by Mehmed II, who spared the lives of the refugees, reminds us of the Prophet Muhammad's statement, “Go, you are free" – another defining moment at a different time and a different place; but, there are differences between the two events. The decision to free the people of Mecca came as no great surprise to them. It was, after all, the messenger of God, an honored brother and the son of an honored brother of Quraysh, and the truthful, trustworthy man they had known for so long. Despite this, the amnesty did away with many psychological barriers and sent a message of reassurance to the tribes of Arabia, who consequently accepted Islam en masse.
The freed refugees of Constantinople, however, were not of the same ethnic group as their conquerors to justify some pity, nor were they pardoned as a reward for converting to Islam. The field of battle was at a meeting point of civilizations and continents. It was not a geographically isolated place like Mecca. These factors transformed the news of the amnesty coming out of Hagia Sophia into a societal message that reached the ends of the known world and turned the place into a cornerstone of a new social order in which the state, and not the good intentions of an individual, was the guarantor of religious freedoms and minority rights. The general population of Constantinople did not convert to Islam, but they did embrace the new societal order of the new state.
A new social order
The events in Hagia Sophia ushered in profound societal changes. The victorious sultan decided to turn his new capital city into a multireligious, multiethnic, cosmopolitan metropolis, one in which all nations and people can live and prosper. The sultan invited artists, merchants, sculptors, poets and writers from all parts of the world to live and work in his capital. He suspended taxes on all immigrants to the city and provided free housing, accelerating the flow of people into the city. The population of Istanbul, with its churches, mosques, synagogues and commercial hubs standing side by side, increased sixfold from around 50,000 at the time of the conquest to 300,000 a mere century later. The society in Istanbul certainly painted a unique picture in the 15th century.
A familiar vision
This vision of a new society, one in which the old rival societies of the two warring empires were to be merged into one, was a familiar one for the sultan and his advisors and did not require or generate much in the way of discussions or arguments. It was not a vision based on the whims and desires of the sultan but steeped in the traditions of Islam and based on Islam’s past states. Another example of these societies was Andalucía in southern Spain.
According to the eminent British historian Sir Thomas Arnold: "From the earliest days of the extension of their kingdom in Asia Minor, the Ottomans exercised authority over Christian subjects, but it was not until the ancient capital of the Eastern Roman Empire fell into their hands in 1453 that the relations between the Muslim government and the Christian Church were definitely established on a fixed basis. One of the first steps taken by Mehmed II, after the capture of Constantinople and the reestablishment of order in that city, was to secure the allegiance of the Christians, by proclaiming himself the protector of the Greek Church. Persecution of the Christians was strictly forbidden; a decree was granted to the newly elected patriarch which secured to him and his successors and the bishops under him, the enjoyment of the old privileges, revenues and exemptions enjoyed under the former rule."
The start of Istanbul society
Istanbul was divided into 13 main districts, each comprised of many secondary neighborhoods that had a mosque, church or synagogue at their center. Each neighborhood represented the common identity of its inhabitants and had a special envoy from the Grand Judge of Istanbul (the Na’ib) and an imam who acted as the chief administrator of the neighborhood. Priests and rabbis were the links between the inhabitants and the authorities in other neighborhoods.
In addition to its role in preserving social and religious cohesion within its boundaries, the neighborhood was an autonomous administrative unit, providing services and taking care of shared civic responsibilities such as maintenance work, cleaning, tax collection, policing and other civic duties toward the State. Different neighborhoods competed in showcasing their cultures and identities. An example of this is the Jewish synagogue designed in the shape of a ship, symbolizing the Ottoman ships that saved the Andalusian Jewish population (along with the Muslims) from mass extermination by their Christian rulers.
The rule of law
The events in Hagia Sophia shepherded a resumption of the immigration based sociopolitical system that developed first in Umayyad Damascus and then Abbasid Baghdad, before moving to Cordoba in Andalucía. It was also a return of the protective role of the capital (Istanbul); the city that extends its social, economic, military and cultural shadow across a region, after an absence throughout many centuries during which the region, namely the Middle East, became a battleground for various competing factions. This immigrant-based society was represented by Ottoman Istanbul, but this time with a new administrative system made necessary by the increasing religious and ethnic diversification of society. This has led many Western writers to suggest that the modern idea of citizenship is an Ottoman concept and that this was responsible for the long period of Ottoman rule – the longest lasting Empire in history, extending over six centuries while ruling over a population of more than 80 ethnicities, religions and sects.
The freed people of Hagia Sophia were not only refugees pardoned by the sultan. They were followed by many freed people from all corners of the world who found in the capital of the new Ottoman state a new kind of society, offering a safe and promising future. A third category of the “freed” includes people who imported the new Ottoman social system to their lands. A good example of this is King Charles XII of Sweden who lived in exile in Istanbul in 1709 and was so astounded by the social care system in the city that he made a promise to himself to try to replicate it in Sweden if he were to regain his crown, which he did. The Swedish social care system today was founded on these very principles. Another beneficiary of the Ottoman system of managing cultural diversity is modern day Europe, which has adopted large parts of the Ottoman system.
The socio-administrative system that came into existence in Hagia Sophia 567 years ago was accompanied by a rapid regional expansion of the Ottoman state. This became the regional order that protected the societies of the cities of the Arab East, like Mosul, Aleppo, Baghdad, Damascus and Jerusalem, for over five centuries of Ottoman rule, and continued to shape modern Arab society even after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Hagia Sophia was the scene of a new chapter in the story of civilization – after the guns had fallen silent. As such, the symbolism of its reversion to a mosque goes beyond the question of a place of worship; it is a commemoration of a seminal moment in history that resulted in nothing short of a lasting realignment of human society.
Turkey, along with Arab societies, needs to reteach the lessons offered by this distinguished history and advancement of civilization to the people of the region, whose cities and societies have been all but devastated by forces that seek to destroy the Ottoman-based state system. We need to be able to explain why our Arab societies were able to maintain their cohesion and identity – similar to that of Turkish society – for many centuries, but seem unable to do so today.
The revival of the Turkish-Arab cultural melting pot, based on the societal principles that followed the capture of Hagia Sophia, is the best and most appropriate celebration of the first Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia after 86 years.
* Researcher and writer on Arabic-Turkish strategic relations and Ottoman studies