An Islamic prayer will be recited in the Christian basilica on July 24. This marks the high point in the Turkish president's neo-Ottoman policy and in modern Turkey’s history. Yet, Hagia Sophia might be seen as a last throw of the dice to hide the country's deep economic crisis characterised by huge military budgets, runaway inflation, and uncontrolled public spending.
Istanbul (AsiaNews) – In a message addressed yesterday evening to the people of Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that an Islamic prayer will be celebrated in Hagia Sophia on 24 July. This will start the process of converting the Constantinian basilica back into a mosque.
The message followed a ruling by the Council of State, Turkey’s top administrative tribunal, cancelling a 1934 decree by which Kemal Ataturk, father of the secular Turkish Republic, had turned Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum.
Erdoğan himself stressed that Hagia Sophia - Aya Sofia, in Turkish, according to the transliteration from the Greek - will retain its historical name and will also be open to Christian visitors, with no entrance fee.
The return of the "pearl of Istanbul," as the Turkish President calls the building, confirms Turkish conquest (Fetih) of the monument; for him this will mean looking at the world through new eyes, in a more sincere and authentic way.
Following Turkish tradition, conquest is more important than the struggle for freedom. Erdoğan's neo-Ottoman conception of Turkey expresses this concept of conquest.
Turning Hagia Sophia museum back into a mosque, already touted by pro-government newspapers, was the result of the will of the political leader, customary in the history of the Turkish state, Kemalist and Islamic alike. This meets the desires of Turkey’s political Islamist movement and the nationalist right, centred in Anatolia.
In recent decades this trend had found a political voice in Necmettin Erbakan, a major political figure who served several as prime minister (1997-98) and deputy prime minister (1977-78). His Welfare Party (Refah Partisi) was dissolved by order of the Constitutional Court in 1998, but this led its members towards the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), founded by Erdoğan, Erbakan's spiritual heir.
Yet Erdoğan was not alone in wanting to turn the museum back into a mosque. Two other Turkish presidents, the late Turgut Özal and the late Süleyman Demirel, both thought about turning Hagia Sophia into a Muslim place of prayer, if not a full-fledged mosque. Erdoğan's bitter enemy, former ally Fethullah Gülen, shared the same desire.
The president’s action has not met with any opposition inside the country, certainly none outside. Neither Trump, nor Putin or Merkel have said a word, conscious of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage and of the country’s economic and geopolitical importance. Under the circumstances, Turkish leaders can do what they please.
It is general knowledge that Erdoğan's neo-Ottoman policy is the brainchild of Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister and foreign minister, as well as one his old comrade-in arms who was duly excluded from power once he began resisting Erdoğan's’ Bonapartist tendencies.
This has dashed the hopes of all those Turks who, in the early 2000s, looked forward to a more democratic Turkey after decades of authoritarian rule.
In diplomatic circles, turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque seems to be the final act by a Turkish president, who can no longer easily use religion as a political tool to mask Turkey’s deep crisis.
For many, now the question is what can the president do at a time when the polls seem to be going against him. Across the country, the economic crisis is weighing heavily on people, with runaway inflation, uncontrolled public spending, and a huge military budget pursuant to the president’s neo-Ottoman policy.
On 24 July, an Islamic prayer will be recited in Saint Sophia under the gaze of the wonderful mosaic of Our Lady Platytera (picture 2), who embraces the world with little Jesus on her knees.
Both are revered in the Qurʼān. Let’s hope that they will lead to more moderate considerations. As the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew put it, problems cannot be solved through crusades, nor are neo-Ottoman conquests final.