By Robert Zaller, Ph.D.
It could not have been known, but those of us fortunate enough to have seen Hagia Sophia between 1935 and 2020 will have had an experience denied to generations before, and, although one fervently hopes otherwise, perhaps for some time to come now. Hagia Sophia was designed by the Emperor Justinian both as the great temple of Christendom and as the supreme monument of the Byzantine Empire that, thanks in large part to him, would succeed the Roman one. In that sense, it was unique as a structure that embodied both the sacred and the secular aspects of a great culture. Its only parallel was the Parthenon, the temple both of the goddess Athena and of Athenian democracy itself. But Athena’s worship would eventually be proscribed, and Athenian democracy survived the Parthenon only briefly: completed in 432 B.C.E., it would be only a year old before the Peloponnesian War that would end Athens’ years of pride and glory began. Hagia Sophia would survive for more than five hundred years as the great symbol of a united Christendom, and for nearly a thousand as the crown jewel of Byzantium.
The Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. It remained so for nearly another five hundred years until modern Turkey’s first ruler, Kemal Ataturk, decided to turn it into a museum. Ataturk’s reasons were complex. He was no lover of Hellenism, having fought the bitter war with Greece between 1919 and 1922 which resulted in a forced exchange of populations that all but destroyed the Greek community of Turkey. But Ataturk was above all determined to turn Turkey into a secular, Western-style state, the only model as he saw it for success in the twentieth-century world. Islam, the religion of a defeated and now largely colonized Middle East, was an impediment to this process. As a museum, Hagia Sophia would symbolize the spirit of a modern and modernizing Turkey.
Ataturk had more pragmatic objectives as well. Italy’s imperial aspirations in the Eastern Mediterranean had alarmed the Balkan states and Greece. Turkey felt its own security imperiled. An entente with regional European states would establish it as a force in Western politics. Secularizing Hagia Sophia was a way of courting such an acceptance. Greece in particular made it clear that it would view such a gesture with favor. The great church would recover or restore Christian mosaics, sculpture, and artifacts long covered or removed. No worship would be permitted, but the two great religions that had shared its history would be acknowledged and honored.
This was the Hagia Sophia that I visited with my wife, the late and beloved Lili Bita, almost fifty years later. I had never visited Turkey, and when in Greece I had no desire to ever be anyplace else. One year, however, found us on the island of Samos. On Samos, we were hard by the coast of Turkey, only a mile and a half distant by ferry from the Turkish mainland. It was not my idea but Lili’s that we visit. I resisted, but Lili’s curiosity got the better of me. Midway at sea, she was seized by an attack of conscience. How could she, a Greek, set foot in the country that had so long oppressed and occupied her own? I reminded her that we had already passed the point of no return, and could only swim back to Samos if we wanted to return. So we arrived, on the Asia Minor coast where Greek culture had once thrived, to see the great site at Ephesus.
Later, we traveled to Cappadocia with its extraordinary caves, to Ankara, which Ataturk had made his capital, and finally to Istanbul, for most of its life Constantinople. Istanbul struck me as the most cosmopolitan city I had ever seen, with a history even more layered than Rome’s. Its beacon, of course, was Hagia Sophia. If the Parthenon is better known to many, no building has had a greater impact on the world, not only as a model for Christian churches but for Muslim mosques. It is also one that has withstood great fires and earthquakes, and been at many times substantially rebuilt. Much of its artwork was destroyed in the iconoclastic purges of the eighth century. More was deliberately destroyed when Constantinople fell to Mehmed the Conqueror in 1453. Always, it has been renewed and revived.
In the 1930s, the great church was in disrepair, no longer with the resources and prestige of the Ottoman Empire to support it but dependent on a far more impoverished Turkey. This, too, may have been on Ataturk’s mind when he made it into an ecumenical monument and decreed it a museum. International funds flowed in, and it was declared in time a world historical landmark—the possession not of a single state or religion, but of all. That was how Lili and I saw it. Hagia Sophia, for so long a site of divine veneration, had become an object of veneration itself, a symbol of religious community, historical continuity, and human aspiration. Even for those who, in a secular world, no longer brought a personal faith to it, it symbolized the grandeur that only a great and enduring house of worship can have.
Did Ataturk himself have such a vision, at least in part? It may be doubted, but I don’t think wholly denied. In any event, what he did certainly want, greater rapprochement with the West, was achieved during the Cold War when Turkey was given membership in NATO and became the crucial link in the containment of Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean and the security of Western interests in the Middle East. Relations were not always easy. Turkish civil instability, leading to periodic military coups, was not only a source of concern but a reminder that, unlike other NATO states, democracy was not the established norm in its eastern bastion. The Turks might have pointed to the 1967 coup in Greece as a counterexample, but the upshot of that singular episode, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the now forty-six-year occupation of its northern region, created a tension between Turkey and its NATO partners that sharply divided them and would be a major factor in denying Turkey membership in the European Union. Turkey was in the Western orbit, but not truly of it.
Meanwhile, the Middle East was undergoing rapid change. The British and French empires which had dominated it after the fall of the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War II, to be replaced by the United States. The Arab-Israeli wars created a new East-West tension, affecting Turkey as well. The formation of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum exporting Countries, challenged Western hegemony in the Middle East, as did the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the rise of terrorist organizations dedicated to driving out the West altogether. After 9/11, the American misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq and its mishandling of the Arab Spring revolts raised further questions about its commitment and competence in the region. Of particular concern to Turkey was America’s enlistment of Kurdish forces as critical allies in Iraq and in the Syrian civil war. The latter brought American-armed Kurd fighters up to Turkey’s southern border and into contact with Kurdish nationalists on the Turkish side, regarded by Ankara as its major security threat. This aligned Turkish interests with those of Russia, making its own bid for influence in the area for the first time in forty years.
It was against this background that Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power in Turkey, first as prime minister and then as president. Erdogan was the first Islamist politician to become chief of state, and among his first acts was to erect a giant mosque atop his small home town. His emergence was seen as a threat to Turkey’s more than eighty-year tradition of secular rule, and he soon curbed the cult of Kemal Ataturk that had symbolized and sustained it. Shrewd and pragmatic, he cultivated Muslim nationalism while at the same time projecting himself as a world statesman. This meant playing several hands at once, bidding for membership in the European Union while cultivating ties to Moscow and positioning Turkey as a major, independent actor in the Middle East. At the same time, he consolidated his personal power, slowly eroding legal and democratic constraints and finally converting Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system which concentrated authority in his own hands. Although his stated “vision” for the future still includes membership in the European Union, his assumption of strongman rule has, as he well understands, effectively precluded it.
Erdogan, although unusually capable and ruthless, has been a product of his times. In the 1930s, Ataturk had nowhere to turn but to the West for the capital and resources to modernize Turkey, and his resolutely secular government was in part an attempt to show Western suitors that the new Turkey had thrown off the vestiges of the failed Ottoman Empire. Europe is divided, the European Union weakened and perhaps crippled, and without serious military power apart from a no longer reliable NATO. The United States has withdrawn from its world leadership role, its own political fabric frayed. China is the rising power of the moment, and Russia, at least locally, the assertive one. Erdogan has many cards to play. Islamicism is one of them.
It is in this context that we may understand the fate of Hagia Sophia. Erdogan had floated the idea of reconverting it into a mosque as early as 2013, and, step by step and pronouncement by pronouncement, he had laid the ground for doing so. There was political profit in merely suggesting it, for a major base of his power remains Muslim nationalist, and, although voices around the globe denounced the proposal, it was clearly a gesture of solidarity with the Islamic and particularly the Arab world. Above all, however, it was a means of asserting Turkish independence, and of Erdogan’s personal indifference to world and especially Western opinion. Strongmen usually affirm their power at some point by an action that, whether concrete or symbolic, defies international norms. Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea. Erdogan, by reconsecrating Hagia Sophia as a mosque, has desecrated it as a place that belongs to humanity as a whole.
A curiously similar event has occurred lately in Philadelphia. Albert Barnes chartered the repository of his matchless art collection, the Barnes Foundation, in the same year that Kemal Ataturk came to power in Turkey. Barnes had a vision of great art as a means of educating a democratic public, and he bequeathed it as a treasure to be seen and studied by all at no cost, free of all commercial interest or attachment. It was seized by a brazen cabal of foundations and their political henchmen, and turned into a circus on the Ben Franklin Parkway. Someday, one may hope, it will be returned to its rightful owners, the people.
As for Hagia Sophia, I am grateful that Lili and I were able to visit it when it was a universal symbol for all mankind, its Christian and Islamic masterworks side by side in an expression of mutual aspiration and peaceful concord such as only art—and the great truce of history—can provide. The monument remains, and so does the Greek name that has and always will belong to it, the Temple of Holy Wisdom. Let us hope that that wisdom can soon be physically reclaimed for Hagia Sophia itself. Spiritually, it can never be lost.
*Robert Michael Zaller is an American author whose works include volumes of history, criticism, and verse. He is Drexel Distinguished University Professor of History Emeritus at Drexel University.