Dr Ziya Meral reflects on why the Turkish government’s decision to change the status and use of Hagia Sophia has shaken him personally. 17/07/2020
I am no Orhan Pamuk. I have lived in three different cities for substantial chunks of my life thus far, and all three shaped me deeply; Izmir, Manila and London. I have travelled around the world widely, and am not nostalgic towards a single past moment, city, landscape, or building that encapsulate my story or my identity. However, a few places on earth have given me a sense of everything in my life coming together, and Hagia Sophia has been one of them. That is why the Turkish government’s decision to change its status and use has shaken me personally.
No, it is not about its politics, which has been a fundamental part of its history since its construction and use throughout the centuries. Its status reflected the shift in early Christianity from being a religion of the socially and politically excluded followers of Christ to heirs of empires, temporal power and religious nationalism. It evolved and took new political symbolism and religious formation throughout centuries at the hands of different conquerors, Christian and Muslim alike. Hagia Sophia has always been a political space as well as a religious one, with the lines between the two regularly blurred.
No, it is not about its glorious dome, with so many other cathedrals and sacred sites across the world that would outbid Hagia Sophia in their intricacies, icons, jaw dropping masonry and construction techniques.
It is about how it brought together two civilisations that, as someone with Turkish and Christian roots, shaped me deeply: the world of Islam and the world of Christianity. It’s about the Arabic inscriptions and the icons on the same wall…The Seraphim covering their face and their feet, while me and souls like me stand vulnerable in the presence of 1500 years of history, murmuring just like the Prophet Isaiah: woe to me. A building where God heard prayers in countless languages and forms. And in that vulnerability, realising how all the futile human quests reach their much-deserved oblivion: generations come and go, emperors, mighty armies and rulers, each with their own promise of glory, fade into the past. But Hagia Sophia remains, carrying all their histories on its skin.
It is a palimpsest…written, erased, re-written. It captures the story of Istanbul more than any other remaining building, and the modern skyscrapers that now adorn its skyline. It melts centuries into a single text to read, to look at and to touch. Its miracle is its survival, with imperfections, with messy additions, and with defaced jewels.
I never liked Hagia Sophia as a museum. I never liked the hurried masses of tourists in large groups filling it up before they head out to go shopping in the Grand Bazaar.
I always dreamed of it as a sacred ground. One that could have brought together Muslims and Christians to pray – not through the syncretistic melting of differences or traditions, but as different worlds eclipsing under an ancient dome. I dreamed of it as the antidote to the imagined ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, which sadly endures no matter how many sane minds keep saying: ‘it is a myth, we are not bound to clash. We can live, pray, and hope together.’
I get it: why Turkey’s religious nationalists and Islamists ended up making Hagia Sophia a rallying point after decades of an abrupt denial of its use as a mosque. I have been as critical as them on the problematic attitude and policies that came out of the laicite vision enforced by Turkey’s previous elites. But after two decades in power, and with so many more pressing issues still to address, narratives of being denied something by not using it as a mosque feel out of tune.
I get it: why Turkey’s opposition parties did not really make an issue out of it, and in fact, why a leading opposition figure supported the move. It is a sensitive battle in Turkey’s culture war, with no real-life implications for voters of the opposition parties, so wiser to stay out of it.
I get it: this will have domestic political benefits for the ruling party, and meet the deeply-held anticipations of a certain slice of Turkey. However, it will also have a negative impact on Turkey’s image, tourism, engagement with especially Christian majority countries, just when its relations with Europe and North America are at their most precarious.
There is a lot that I also do not get or share: how so few of the reactions seem to be driven by concerns over Turkey’s disappearing Christian heritage, present, and future. They often come across as ‘yet another example’ to prove whatever complaint the usual cohorts have against Turkey, or Erdogan, or Islam, or Muslims. They rage, set up campaigns, tweet bold statements and urge all to condemn, punish, and react. All the while the Christians of Turkey seem to be confused, quiet, silent, absent, worried.
We have seen this before: foreign religious freedom advocates leaving a trail of serious long-term damage while waging campaigns on issues elsewhere. It may help fill up organisational newsletters with accounts of lives a few thousand miles away. Yet, often, it is not clear whether their advocacy helped anyone as they claimed or whether it made things worse for local churches in the long run.
We have seen the same pattern applied to the suffering of Christians in Turkey and the Middle East for the last 100 years: it is picked up whenever it suits somebody else’s agenda (both in the region and abroad) but it only leaves Christians further isolated and more vulnerable than before. And when the agenda moves on, Christians are forgotten and left alone to face the problems.
With many of my friends that share my faith and land of my birth, our feelings are not rage against Muslims, or Islam, or Erdogan, or Turkey. Rather, we feel sadness, loss, a silent prayer, a silent tear. Not because anyone ever had the ambition of holding a church service there, or objects to Muslims praying there or it being a mosque once again, as it has been for hundreds of years already. Not just because of the triumphalism that underwrites the domestic political agendas that ultimately portrays them as aliens in the lands they called home for 2000 years. But because in two decades, the land that played a fundamental role in the emergence of Christianity will have lost most traces of it, save a few empty buildings here and there, full of hurried tourists and guides making up whatever story they can on that day.
The Church, with a capital C, is not a building. For a Christian, the most glorious cathedral is whenever and wherever two or three gathers in His name. The Church is not time and geography bound, but is two thousand years of a story unfolding. Church buildings come and go, and in fact many in Europe are empty, decaying, turned into flats. The real tragedy overlooked in the rage over Hagia Sophia by the myriad of people with their own agendas is a community that has already been disappearing slowly, but still grounded in a hope both eternal and timeless.
As for Hagia Sophia, or now Ayasofya-i Kebir Camii, it will continue to move millions who pray in it formally as a mosque, and those who visit it as tourists in between Islamic prayers. It will continue to defy any single reading of what it conveys; like a true palimpsest, its history will always be visible in traces, and its readers will always contend its meaning according to who they are. The urge to conquer it will never be fully satisfied, and its memory and legacy will never be simplified.
For me, I will continue to visit Ayasofya-i Kebir Camii. I will sit silently and say Amen to all that is being prayed by my Muslim friends and sojourners, as I regularly do in mosques I visit to catch my breath. Their sincerity, and the beauty of Arabic words will continue to move me. But I will still in my heart carry the loss of the Hagia Sophia – not the building but the meaning that made me feel at home.