Hagia Sophia: from Heritage site to symbol of discord?

Tens of thousands of Muslims gathered on Friday in and outside the Hagia Sophia for the first Friday prayers to be held there in 85 years. Built in 537 and now a Unesco World Heritage Site, the building was a church until 1453, then a mosque, and most recently a museum. While Turkey's President Erdoğan celebrated the building's controversial reopening as a mosque, Europe's press mourns the move.

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Hürriyet Daily News (TR) /

A country between extremes

Turkey is divided between diametrically opposite orientation points, comments Hürriyet Daily News:

“At the same hours as crowds were gathering outside Hagia Sophia, representatives of various nongovernmental organizations wanted to mark the anniversary of the treaty [of Lausanne] in some cities, including Ankara and İzmir. ... Today's Turkey, unfortunately, displays two pictures in full contrast to each other: on the one hand, a growingly nationalist-conservative trend and on the other, a pro-democracy, secular and modernist trend. While the former hails the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, the latter makes clear Atatürk and his revolutions will not fade away.”

nv.ua (UA) /

Europe has lost Turkey

The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia shows how radically the country has changed under Erdoğan's leadership, writes former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt in nv.ua:

“For more than ten years Turkey undertook democratic reforms and moved in the direction of Europe. It even planned to revise its constitution, and launched official EU accession negotiations in 2005. Its transformation was impressive and profound, and inspired us as outside observers. But those days full of hope are over. Instead of modernising and moving closer to the rest of Europe, Turkey is now drowning in the swamp of the Middle East under Erdoğan's rule. There are many reasons for this fundamental change, including the country's failed dialogue on the Kurdish question and the attempted coup by army officers who belonged to the Fethullah-Gülen movement in the summer of 2016.”

Der Tagesspiegel (DE) /

Desecularisation going too far

When all is said and done Erdoğan is repeating the mistakes of state founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, writes Turkey correspondent Susanne Güsten in Der Tagesspiegel:

“It was Atatürk who made Turkey a secular state, open to European culture. Erdoğan and his followers have always viewed this orientation as a sign of external influence and a suppression of the people's true will. ... This criticism of the state founder is not entirely unfounded. Atatürk's course had fatal consequences because it kept devout Muslims away from universities and government offices and made them second-class citizens. Erdoğan has corrected this error, but he's now going too far. He is in the process of redefining Turkey as a Muslim republic. As a result, millions of non-religious people and members of minorities feel excluded.”

Pravda (SK) /

Erdoğan a master of the war of symbols

The assurance that the Hagia Sophia will remain an accessible monument for everyone is merely an attempt to appease critics, says Pravda:

“This is only a weak statement when it comes to a political decision that speaks in a clear symbolic language. What monument of human culture is more contradictory than the Hagia Sophia of Byzantine-Constantinople? Transformed into an Istanbul mosque after almost a millennium, when in 1453 a great phase of Christian-Muslim rivalry ended and the geopolitical balance shifted? There is nothing better suited to escalating tensions than a war of symbols. President Erdoğan knows this very well.”

Berliner Zeitung (DE) /

Atatürk has won

Erdoğan will no doubt soon be forced to admit that this spectacle isn't helping him politically, the Berliner Zeitung comments:

“Drone footage has revealed that instead of the tens of thousands of believers that had been expected, only 200 rejoicing Turks made their way to the Hagia Sophia on the day the conversion was decided. Pollsters found out that over 40 percent of the Turkish population believes that Erdoğan is just trying to divert attention from the economic crisis. Of the young Generation Z, only ten percent are at all interested in religion. ... Erdoğan is being confronted with the profane truth that secular modernity has not left Turkey unaffected. The truth is that the pro-Western republic founder Atatürk, who turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum and the most important symbol of his secular policies, has long since won this contest.”

G4Media.ro (RO) /

Erdoğan like a lost tourist

The Turkish president looks like a fish out of water in the photos he had took of himself at the Hagia Sophia, historian Ionuț Cojocaru remarks in G4Media.ro:

“I've been following the news from Turkey for years, but so far I've never heard anything about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visiting the Hagia Sophia. He was never interested in it as a cultural monument. ... But now that he's symbolically seen as the second conqueror of Constantinople, he's had himself photographed in it to convey the impression of a man who's writing history. Even though professional photographers did their best to make him look good there, he looks to me like a man who feels like a stranger to the place, or a tourist who doesn't really know what he's there for.”

Público (PT) /

Political decision endangers cultural heritage

The Hagia Sophia will not be what it used to be, Público fears:

“The transformation from museum to mosque is not harmless from a political or geopolitical point of view and entails risks for the cultural heritage that has been preserved until today. The great Christ Pantocrator mosaic and other Byzantine mosaics will have to be concealed as they were many centuries ago, and many details of Christian history throughout the building will have to be removed or hidden. ... One does not leave the Hagia Sophia as one entered it - not for nothing is it called the 'divine wisdom'. But entering it as a mosque is not the same as entering it as a museum. ... Contemplation changes, gestures change and much of what we see today cannot be shown in a mosque without violating the rules of Islam.”

Sabah (TR) /

Resisting the pressure of the Christian world

The pro-government daily Sabah also sees the building's reconversion into a mosque as politically motivated, but says this is the right thing to do anyway:

“We had to show that we will not bow to the pressure that the Christian world has increasingly put on Turkey in recent years. Was it not a Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, who wrote that the Christian world received its biggest slap in the face from Fatih Sultan Mehmet when he held Islamic prayers in the Hagia Sophia? ... This is the reason why the Hagia Sophia has been opened for prayer while preserving its status as a museum. And this means that the decision on the Hagia Sophia is a political one.”

Ta Nea (GR) /

Alliance with Moscow is the real motivation

Foreign policy played a key role in Erdoğan's decision, Ta Nea explains:

“No, Mr. Erdoğan did not decide to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque in order to obliterate the Kemalist legacy. The move has clear geopolitical motivations and effects and it was carefully calculated in Ankara and abroad. ... It is Mr. Erdoğan's commercial and military strategic alliance with Russia through which the Turkish leader has heaped scorn and contempt on Washington and Nato that is the foremost and definitive motivation for an otherwise perplexing move and timing.”

Artı Gerçek (TR) /

Conversion testifies to lacking self-confidence

Artı Gerçek finds the decision to turn the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque tragic:

“Istanbul is closing itself off from the world in a way that is not compatible with its identity or its past. ... 567 years have passed since the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. But apparently we still can't get used to the fact that this magnificent city has been left to us permanently. Instead we try to prove unnecessarily that it is our property - which basically testifies to a lack of self-confidence. This city's universal cultural heritage belongs to both us and to the world. Our real task is to treat this legacy with the respect its history deserves and to present it to the world in such a way that all can marvel at it. Covering up the murals of the Hagia Sophia, even if only during prayer times, is a disservice to Istanbul.”

Berlingske (DK) /

Unesco must start exerting pressure

For Berlingske Unesco's official statement in which it said it "deeply regretted" Turkey's decision is far too weak:

“The nations that stand for the preservation of the world cultural heritage must sound a strong alarm. The West, with its many guest workers, injects hundreds of billions of crowns into the Turkish tourism industry every year; if anyone benefits from a good relationship with the strongest economies of the West, it is the Turks and President Erdoğan himself. The building with its gigantic dome really only still exists thanks to the support of the international community: it is located in an earthquake risk area. ... In cooperation with Unesco, Turkish engineers have worked hard to find a solution. In other words: Unesco must now take the matter to a higher level and exert real pressure.”

Habertürk (TR) /

The "enemies of religion" remain silent

The Turkish opposition has for the most part welcomed the Hagia Sophia decision or criticised it only timidly. Much to the displeasure of some government supporters, Habertürk observes:

“Some 'trolls' - or those who use them - are not very happy that the opposition and the journalists whom they class in the ranks of the opposition have not reacted to the reopening of the Hagia Sophia. They want someone to come out and say 'You can't do this, we won't let you'. Because they're just burning to point fingers at them and say 'These are the enemies of religion, the infidels controlled by the West'. ... Then they could create a new enemy, a new fracture point. If no criticism comes, they'll be very disappointed and may even ask, 'Was there any point in opening the Hagia Sophia for prayer?'”

Le Monde (FR) /

The end of secularism

Author Aslı Erdoğan criticises in Le Monde:

“Converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a deliberate slap in the face for those who still believe that Turkey is a secular country. It effectively abolishes the system of Kemalism - or rather of secularism, since Turkey followed the French and not the Anglo-Saxon model. ... Erdoğan's regime is demonstrating that from now on Turkey's new model is the Ottoman Empire. This regime will no longer bother with the moral values ascribed to the West or contemporary society, or with Western modernist concepts. It won't let little things like law and democracy, etc., stand in the way of its great conquest. The conquest of absolute power.”

Karar (TR) /

Yearning for the glorious past

Karar explains the building's enormous symbolic power for religious-nationalistic Turks:

“The dream of a Hagia Sophia from whose minarets believers are once again called to prayer and in which they pray again stood for the concept of the 'liberation of Turkey from the rule of the Western world'. ... The conversion into a museum was seen as an acceptance of defeat vis-à-vis the West. ... Yet at the same time the Hagia Sophia reminds us of our glorious past and allows us to forget the intellectual, economic, political and military defeats we have suffered in recent times at the hands of the West. It is the symbol of hope that one day we could revive this majestic past. (Naturally, chasing after the memories of past glory instead of examining our miserable current state does not testify to a healthy mentality).”

Naftemporiki (GR) /

Perhaps the beginning of the end for Erdoğan

The Turkish president is raising the stakes very high, Naftemporiki comments:

“In fact it's very likely that Erdoğan deliberately chose this unthinkable insult to Western civilization in the hopes that the Christian world would 'retaliate'. If there is a retaliation, he'll rant about the threat from outside and cast Turkey as the victim in order to gather his followers around him. But rather than running an acceptable risk, the president has gone too far this time. With this move he's insulting - and challenging - the biggest players in the region, from Orthodox Russia to the EU to the United States, which may have a different president in a few months' time. It's not to be ruled out that the Hagia Sophia could become a millstone around Erdoğan's neck.”

Adevărul (RO) /

Disputes and legal wrangling likely

This is just the beginning of the disputes, political analyst Radu Carp suspects in Adevărul:

“We must wait and see how other Islamic states react. Because from the point of view of Islamic principles the transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is quite controversial. Moreover, other Islamic countries are currently looking critically at what is happening in Turkey - it's difficult to accept a powerful competitor. It's also quite possible that a lengthy dispute about the ownership of the Hagia Sophia will now begin. The European Court of Justice has already ruled in the past (in a case in 2010) on legal disputes regarding the estate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate [of Constantinople] in Turkey. ... The question of who could act as plaintiff remains. Ideally this role should be played by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Unesco.”

Vedomosti (RU) /

Like reburying Pompeii

Vedomosti worries about the fate of the unique Byzantine frescoes in the Hagia Sophia:

“For nine centuries, this was the most magnificent architectural complex and central art depository on the planet. ... In fact, the Hagia Sophia is the only surviving bridge between the art of antiquity and Renaissance art. And now it's to be used as a mosque. The marble floor will be covered with a carpet and the mosaics must disappear. The Turkish authorities say that various options are being discussed for the frescoes: curtains, a laser-operated dimming system, or simply taking them down and moving them to a museum. Imagine if the Italian government had decided to cover Pompeii with soil once more and leave the land to the descendants of the farmers who grew their crops there until the mid-18th century.”

Jornal de Notícias (PT) /

Ideal place for inter-religious dialogue

Father Fernando Calado Rodrigues speaks out in Jornal de Notícias in favour of the Hagia Sophia being used by both Muslims and Christians:

“In June, when people began to talk about Erdoğan's desire to turn the museum into a mosque, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, Sahak Mashalian, suggested opening Saint Sophia not only for Muslim but also for Christian worship. This would be the ideal solution, firstly because it respects the purpose for which it was built - a place of prayer. And secondly because it would make it a space for inter-religious coexistence. In this way it would contribute to a rapprochement and good understanding between different religions and cultures.”

Sabah (TR) /

Erdoğan inspires Muslims

A historic day, the pro-government daily Sabah comments jubilantly:

“President Tayyip Erdoğan, the architect of the decision who has fulfilled the longing for worship in Turkish-Islamic cities and inspired 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, will be remembered with his prayers. ... July 10th is the day on which it was recognised that the conquest of Manzikert in 1071 has not ended, that the liberation of Istanbul in 1453 [by the Ottomans] was not completed, that this conquest will continue into eternity, until the apocalypse. ... Of course it is a strategic decision, but it also deserves our holy applause and gratitude.”

Sözcü (TR) /

A trump card for winning votes

The decision is aimed at ensuring the political survival of Erdoğan and his AK Party, writes columnist Rahmi Turan in the Kemalist paper Sözcü:

“I suspect there will be steps towards an early election. Although the AKP leadership keeps promising: 'There will be no early elections. We are already in power. Why should we hold an election?'. But all the developments show that this is not true. ... Turkey is performing poorly in terms of its economy, unemployment, the rule of law and justice. ... Polls show that the AKP and its junior partner MHP are still losing votes. Before they suffer further losses, they could decide to use the momentum that the Hagia Sophia case has given them with the religious base to go to the polls. The AKP is convinced it has played the 'Hagia Sophia trump card' at just the right moment.”

Politis (CY) /

International indifference

Commentator Pampos Chrysostomou would have liked to see the international community voice more disapproval:

“Apart from Cyprus and Greece, which harshly condemned the unlawful decision and demanded its revocation, the reactions of the remaining states that are in a position to exert pressure to have the decision overturned have been lukewarm to neutral. … The stance of the European Union, Germany, the United States, Russia and other countries on Erdoğan's provocative actions leaves no doubt. ... Their reaction to the problem of the Hagia Sophia also shows how they'll deal with other problems related to Turkish criminal activity in the south-eastern Mediterranean.”

T24 (TR) /

Harmful exploitation of the judiciary

The Turkish president should leave the courts out of the dispute over the Hagia Sophia, law professor Ali D. Ulusoy comments in T24:

“When all is said and done, it's not right to use legal authorities for such politically motivated matters. The president has the authority to take a personal decision to convert the building into a mosque, and that's what he should do. And he personally should face up to the criticism that this will draw from the international community. Needless to say, on principle the courts should not bear any responsibility for politically motivated matters.”

nv.ua (UA) /

Geopolitical games instead of reforms

Efforts to convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque are aggravating tensions in the region, observes nv.ua editor Ivan Verstyuk:

“Erdoğan wants to take away at least some of the European tourists from Greece and has given the idea of competing with Greece the status of a dogma of Turkish politics. ... The events surrounding the Hagia Sophia are an example of how instead of reforming the economy and improving the investment climate, Eastern European politicians are playing geopolitical games in the hope of boosting their popularity. But a religious Pandora's box is a bad way to boost poll ratings.”

Hürriyet Daily News (TR) /

Too precious for political games

The debate is about much more than politics, Hürriyet Daily News points out:

“Hagia Sophia is too beautiful a monument and too precious a historical document to serve as a pawn in regional politics. Successive Byzantine, Ottoman, and Turkish governments have protected it against the ravages of time and thus maintained its significance not only for themselves, but also for future generations, including all of us. It is a matter of vital concern to us as scholars of Byzantine and Ottoman art and culture that the current Turkish government continue this tradition of responsible stewardship.”

Le Monde (FR) /

Neo-Ottoman transformation of Kemalism

Since Erdoğan can't erase Ataturk or Kemalism from history he is reinterpreting them instead, historian Olivier Bouquet comments in Le Monde:

“Some major Kemalist symbols are being realigned in the service of the Neo-Ottoman agenda: after the conquest of Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was converted from a Byzantine basilica into a mosque in 1453, and was made a museum in 1934 at Ataturk's behest. President Erdoğan hopes to turn it into a mosque once more. During the commemoration of the conquest of Constantinople on May 29, the 48th Surah of the Koran ('The Conquest') was read in the Hagia Sophia. Drilling in the Greek marine area was announced on the same day. One of the ships in the operation is called Fatih ('the Conqueror'). ... In many ways, Erdoğanism is a neo-Ottoman transformation of Kemalism.”

The Independent (GB) /

Diversionary tactic is a waste of time

The future of the Hagia Sofia is certainly not what people in Turkey are really worried about, The Independent comments:

“Whether the court rules in 15 days for the monument to serve as a mosque or not, the numbing effect of the controversy would last only a short while before the public would be left with the stark reality that the economic downturn of the last two years has left them poorer. ... More than 40 percent of 1,537 participants in the Turkey Report by Istanbul Economy Research named the economy as their primary issue, followed by 19 percent who were concerned about unemployment.”