For more than eight decades, the iconic Hagia Sophia has stood as a monument for inter-faith harmony. This cathedral-turned-mosque-turned museum has not only symbolized Turkey’s secular order where no religion is given the pride of place, but also has been making a powerful statement that Christianity and Islam can coexist despite four centuries of Crusades on the Islamic world from 1095 to 1492.
During a visit to Turkey some years ago, I was awestruck by this architectural marvel. Its exterior captivates onlookers, from whichever way they approach it. Its interior beauty is kaleidoscopic, whichever direction we turn to while standing at the centre of the giant nave that has a great dome ceiling.
There were signs that the original paintings depicting Christian figures and Byzantine royals had been painted over after the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmed II took over the Orthodox Christian cathedral, following their capture in 1453 of Istanbul, which was then known as Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium or the Eastern Roman Empire. It is said that the early Ottomans left the painting of Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus -- both revered by Muslims -- untouched when they painted the walls yellow. Prior to the Ottomans, some figures had been removed during the 7-8th centuries in keeping with the Christian world’s iconoclast era belief that statues and icons demeaned spiritualism.
The cathedral, then 1000 years old, became a Muslim mosque with the Ottomans erecting four new minarets around the building. The conversion became easy as the main chamber coincidentally was in the direction of Makkah (Mecca), to which Muslims turn when they pray. Legend has it that it was in a different direction and the Islamic mystic al-Khidr -- about whom stories galore in apocryphal Islamic texts -- turned the structure to face Makkah.
Hagia Sophia, which means ‘holy wisdom’, remained a mosque for nearly five centuries, unmindful of its history. It was commissioned by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 527 -- 90 years before Prophet Muhammad began his mission in Makkah, some 3,177 kilometres southeast of Constantinople, to preach Abrahamic monotheism that binds Judaism, Christianity and Islam together. In 1934, modern Turkey’s founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk made Hagia Sophia a museum. The paint that had covered the Christian art was painstakingly removed. Hagia Sophia became an international heritage site, attracting 3.3 million tourists a year.
Last Friday, following a court ruling, Turkey’s Islamic-leaning President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Hagia Sophia’s conversion to a mosque. Erdogan believes that the 1934 decision to turn the mosque into a museum was a historical mistake. Next Friday, July 24, Muslims will pray in the main chamber for the first time in eight decades.
Erdogan’s decision drew global condemnation from various quarters, including the United States, Greece which represents the Orthodox Church, and the Council of World Churches. Probably, Erdogan’s move was aimed at casting him in the mould of an Ottoman Sultan in waiting to prop up his political ambitions.
Although Turkey’s religious affairs authority Diyanet says Hagia Sophia will be opened to visitors outside prayer times and its Christian icons will remain, the conversion of a universal symbol of religious harmony to a mono-religious place of worship is regrettable, given its importance as an antidote to rising racism and religious disunity across the world.
However, the issue of desecrating and destroying places of worship is much bigger than Hagia Sophia. History is full of outlandish conversions of places of worship from one religion to another.
In Spain, the Great Cathedral of Cordoba was once the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Its conversion to Christianity took place some 50 years after Hagia Sophia was converted to Islam. Ruled by Muslim caliphs for more than seven centuries, Spain was once home to thousands of mosques and madrasas. After the Muslims lost Spain, some of these Islamic buildings were turned into churches while some were destroyed.
The demolition of the 16th century Babri Masjid in the Indian city of Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindu extremists is another case in point. Hindus believe the mosque had been built at the birthplace of Hindu deity Rama. After decades of legal battles and deadly communal clashes, in November last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the entire site should be handed over to a trust to build the Hindu temple while Muslims be allocated state land to build a mosque.
Another major international dispute surrounding a contentious house of worship is brewing in Jerusalem. Revered by all three Abrahamic religions, Jerusalem was the casus belli for the Crusades.
To fast track the messianic era, ultraorthodox Jewish groups are in a hurry to build the Third Temple in Jerusalem by demolishing Al Aqsa mosque, the third holiest mosque of Muslims after the mosques in Makkah and Madinah in Saudi Arabia. The Palestinians see the annexation plan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is linked to the plan to build the Third Temple.
Also in Israel, municipal authorities in Safed converted a historic mosque to a bar and events hall in April last year. After Israel annexed the Palestinian town of Safed in 1948, al-Ahmar mosque was first turned into a Jewish school, then into a Likud party office and then into a clothes warehouse before finally being converted into a nightclub last year.
These and many more examples show that conversion or desecration of religious places has continued throughout history and Hagia Sophia won’t be the last.
The distressing trend will continue until we learn to respect each other’s beliefs, just as a church in Berlin last week and Islam’s second caliph seven centuries ago have shown us. The church has opened its doors to Muslim worshippers for Friday prayers after it learnt they cannot fit into their small mosque under social distancing rules. In the seventh century, Caliph Umar was invited to pray in the Jerusalem church by the church hierarchy after the city was conquered, but, he refused saying he feared that latter day Muslims would convert the church into a mosque on the basis that Umar had prayed there.