If Istanbul exhibits the paramount emanation of Turkish Muslimness, Hagia Sophia emerges as its spatial quintessence. Since 1453, the crescendo of the Ottoman engagement with the Byzantines, the transformation of Hagia Sophia into Hagia Sophia Mosque has transcended beyond the rituals of conquest. For the pious Muslims, it manifested the fulfillment of a Prophetic vision prefigured eight centuries before. For the nascent architects of the Sublime Porte, it inspired the image of an imminent frontier of empire-building. Hagia Sophia Mosque vouched as an emblem of a new axial age for Muslims. The legacies of the age of Ottomans ushered in a magisterial empire of world-historical relevance, though the resuscitation of Byzantine memories followed divergent routes owing to their progenitors. Cultural cascades of myths and legends, replete with motifs of the Turks and Muslims, henceforth flourished; thus, constituting pre-modern parallels to modern conceptualizations of the Other and the Oriental.
Were the Ottomans to imitate and act upon similar drives, the world would have never been the same. While the Spanish Kingdom forcibly converted innumerable mosques, Muslim fortifications and Umayyad-era palace complex into cathedrals and Christian structures in the Iberian Peninsula; under the Ottoman rule of more than 500 years, structures such as Coptic Orthodox Churches of Egypt and the Monasteries of Mount Athos, only thrived. No empires, monarchies, or duchies with footholds in the Balkan lands, even in a state of war for centuries against the Ottomans, had experienced any genocidal schemes which their Muslim counterparts had to experience in Spanish Iberia during the early 17th century or in Russian Circassia while in the late 19th century.
As the successor state to the Ottoman Empire, the relics of the Turkish nation have never been generated by the evanescence of either political equilibrium or by popular will only. In fact, the shared complementarities of history, tradition and narratives of belonging, have been the foundation of the Turkish-Muslim identity. By these very criteria, St. Peter’s Basilica is as Italian and Catholic as Saint Basil’s Cathedral is Russian and Orthodox. Therefore, Hagia Sophia Mosque, in its entirety, is solely and simultaneously, Ottoman, Turkish and Muslim. The mosque, for almost half a millennium, stands as an hourglass of the Turkish-Muslim soul. No single work of architecture can evince the genealogical homily of what it means to be a Turkish-Muslim except the Hagia Sophia. Hence, reinstatement of the rights of Muslim worship is not only legitimate by means of popular mandate in a country with a 97% Muslim population but also paramount in terms of repatriation of a historical grievance. It must also be underscored that the decisions and actions of the Turkish Government are in robust accordance with juridical authorizations and political decora commensurate with Turkey’s status as a major regional power.
The unipolar world of today’s neoliberal worldview, though has showered scores of objections against the reclamation of Hagia Sophia as a mosque under pretexts of preservation of heritage, it seems to misread its own subtext of moralism. When politicians of a constitutionally secular Indian Republic deem it necessary to erase the last traces of the Mughal Empire by the arbitrary renaming of historical cities or Muslim monuments, such interventions are framed as efforts toward indigenization. When Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire in 2019, the laicite of French sentiments compromised rather swiftly toward collective mourning and fundraising for a cathedral. Even the blatant Judaization of the landscape of Jerusalem at the expense of Muslim and Christian spaces tend to go unreservedly overlooked.
If the Turkish government is reprehended for evoking neo-Ottomanism by granting worship privileges to Muslims in a Muslim landmark, then disapproval must also be leveled at the governments of Balkan states for their virtual ban on construction of mosques along with their longstanding discrimination against the native Muslim population, coupled almost akin to an undeclared neo-Megali Idea. For the nightwatchmen with a demand for secularity, the Turkish stance on Hagia Sophia may sound too explicitly religious. However, to defy their own paradox, they should also have expressed zealous disappointment over the secular parliaments of Portugal and Spain for enacting fast-track citizenship laws applicable exclusively to Sephardic Jews back in 2015. As the rationales behind the selected urges for selective consistencies shall remain unresolved, the Turkish government and the Turkish people will be welcoming a new era of belonging to the kernel of their nationhood.
* Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University
** Academic at United International University, Bangladesh