After it was reported that Turkish President Recep Erdogan was considering converting Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia into a functioning mosque, many Orthodox Christians hoped he was just speculating. However, in an interview given yesterday, Erdogan confirmed that the historic site, which was previously a Christian cathedral and a special place of worship for Greek Orthodox Christians, will be turned into an enormous Islamic center.
“Ayasofya (Haghia Sophia) will no longer be called a museum. Its status will change,” Erdogan said in a live broadcast, according to Hurriyet Daily News. “We will call it a mosque.”
An act of retaliation?
Erdogan then called attention to the Israeli forces’ action on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem earlier this month, ranting that those who stay silent on what is going on in Israel should not be afforded the right to criticize his plans for the Hagia Sophia.
“Those who remain silent when Masjid Al-Aqsa is attacked, trampled, its windows smashed, cannot tell us what to do about the status of Ayasofya,” Erdogan continued, noting that his decision was in response to President Donald Trump’s recent decision to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory — something which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a “two-fold act of historic justice.”
The United Nations does not recognize the Golan Heights as official Israeli territory.
“Unfortunately, Trump is behaving like a bully boy,” Erdogan said of president’s most recent diplomatic move. “How can you do this despite the United Nations? What are you doing? Being at the helm of a state like the U.S. does not give you such a right..”
Earlier this month, Israeli forces closed off the violent flashpoint surrounding the Al-Aqsa Mosque after alleging that a firebomb attack had been launched at an Israeli police station in the local area.
Protected by UNESCO
Despite Erdogan’s fury at Trump usurping the UN’s political authority, Greek officials have insisted that the Turkish leader will need to attain clearance from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) if he is to make any changes to the building, as the Hagia Sophia is a protected historical site.
“It is not only a great temple of Christendom — the largest for many centuries — it also belongs to humanity,” Greek Foreign Minister George Katrougalos implored, according to the Greek Reporter. “It has been recognized by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization), as part of our global cultural heritage.”
“So any questioning of this status is not just an insult to the sentiments of Christians, it is an insult to the international community and international law,” he added.
UNESCO sources have confirmed that the Turkish government would need to seek its approval before converting the building into a mosque.
What is the religious history of Hagia Sophia?
After construction was completed in the year 537, the Hagia Sophia (Greek for “Holy Wisdom”) functioned as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople for almost a thousand years.
Then, in 1453, following the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the Ottomans, Mehmed the Conqueror immediately ordered that the building be converted into a mosque. Tragically, the bells, altar, iconostasis and other precious relics were destroyed and beautiful mosaics depicting Jesus and other central biblical characters were destroyed or plastered over.
The ancient place of worship, located in Turkey’s capital of Istanbul, was converted into a museum back in 1935, but still remains a uniquely special place to many of the Greek Orthodox tradition.
“Constantinople will never exist again,” Erdogan declared in his remarks Wednesday. “The name of this area is Islambol (full of Islam) and you know that.”
Last year, President Erdogan recited an Islamic prayer in the Hagia Sophia, dedicating the “souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul’s conqueror.”
It is important to note that Mehmed, whom Erdogan was referring to in his remarks, is historically noted as being an extremely violent and brutal leader with a penchant for having sex with underage boys (see “The Ottoman Centuries” by Scottish historian, Lord Kinross).
Erdogan’s waning popularity
Erdogan has come under fire recently as he attempts to redevelop vast swathes of the capital, at the expense of many citizens. Back in 2010, the president decided to bulldoze the houses of 15,000 people to make way for a shimmering new complex of spas, malls and apartments. Unfortunately, most of the investors have since pulled out, leaving huge numbers of average citizens homeless and full of contempt for their leader.
— uzunel_id (@IdUzunel) July 29, 2018
Zeynep Duzgunoldu, 60, was one of those left homeless by the botched building project.
“People used to call it ‘the house with the beautiful kitchen,'” she told the BBC, holding back tears. “Now my rucksack is my home. I’m ashamed to ask my children for money.”
“I feel hatred towards him,” she added. “I always voted for him — but he’s ruined his people.”