Recently the President of Turkey Erdoğan signed a decree about re-establishing the world’s most famous cultural heritage, museum and Christian (Orthodox) symbol Hagia Sophia as a mosque (Gall 2020). This monumental and most important Byzantine church was founded in the 6th century Anno Domini by order of the most powerful Byzantine emperor Justinian (ruled 527–565), which became a symbol of the entire Christian world and especially of the Orthodox Church.
Haljand Udam, the famous Estonian orientalist, wrote in his book “Turkey. Journey through the history of Turkish civilization” (Türgi. Teekond läbi Türgi tsivilisatsiooni ajaloo) about the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the fate of Hagia Sophia in 1453 when the city, the Byzantine Empire and Hagia Sophia fell to the Turks: “The final conquest of the Byzantine state was symbolized by turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque. The Sultan felt like the Messiah al-Muntazir, the Messiah of the Supreme, foretold and expected by all the prophets, whose reign begins after the fall of the kingdom of Christ. He was now the emperor of Rome and lord of all the ecumene (the Subjugated Land). Constantinople was desirable because it was in the middle of the ecumene” (Udam 2011, 114–115).
In this sense we see how the translatio imperii (transfer of empire from one country to another) takes place today, i.e., the transmission of the imperial idea is also visible in modern Turkey ruled by Erdoğan. Turkey sees itself as a descendant of the Ottoman Empire and indirectly (to some extent) even the Byzantine or Roman Empire. That is also why Istanbul (formerly Constantinople, the “City of Constantine”) is also desirable location even today; it is not just a bridge between Asia and Europe but something more. This city was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great in 4th century, making it the “second Rome” and the capital of his empire. Later it became Istanbul, the heart of the Ottoman state. One can get the impression that the idea of the fall of the “Kingdom of Christ” and the rise of Turkey occupies the minds of today’s Turkish leaders as well. However, the real reason for turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is probably to do with the fact that the Turkish government aspires to become a major power in the whole region of the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean. This has been confirmed both by Erdoğan’s political rhetoric and by his militant politics in the region (including interference in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars) (Colborne, Edwards 2018).
Neo-ottomanism. Let’s make Turkey great again!
Erdoğan is also consumed by the idea of Islam’s triumph in Turkey as a power move as one of the world’s leaders. More broadly, Erdoğan sees himself to a certain extent as the continuation of the life’s work of Sultan Mehmet II and other great Turkish sultans. After all, Mehmet II, conqueror of Constantinople and the Byzantine destroyer, ushered in the expansion of Turkish influence, just as Vladimir Putin is following the example of Ivan the Terrible, Peter I, Catherine II and Stalin. Turkey is sending a message to the Christian West: “Behold! The new rise of the Ottomans is coming” and intends to offend Greece and the Greek Orthodox Church with such actions. As a neo-Ottomanist, Erdoğan certainly wants to make Turkey the main player in the Middle East and to influence Europe and Central Asia as well. He has ruled the High Port for almost 17 years (2003–2014 as Prime Minister and since 2014 as President) and acts as an “Islamist Atatürk” (Asi, Sazonov 2017).
In some ways, Erdoğan’s ambitions are no smaller than Vladimir Putin’s, who dreams of Russia as a new Eurasian empire. The transformation of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is also a message to Christians in Turkey and to the Patriarchate of Constantinople that Islam is unique in the country and that the era of secularism in Turkey is now over. It seems that Erdoğan is trying to revise several reforms of Atatürk and in making a reversal of when Atatürk secularized Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s, Erdogan is trying to increase the role of Islam in the country, doing it slowly but systematically. As a moderate Islamist, he does so slowly, step by step, but consistently, and he has one goal: the “sultanate” of Turkey. It is certainly not a sultanate in the classical sense, but to some extent it still could apply. When Atatürk turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1935 and opened it to everyone the idea disturbed Erdoğan and the Islamist-minded elite, and Erdoğan is acting like Mehmet II once did, turning it in 1453 from one of the most important centres for Christians and the culture of Western civilization, a monument to religion, into a mosque once again. As the West did not react strongly enough or protest (with the exception of UNESCO, a number of organizations, Orthodox churches and some countries), this is only a sign to Erdoğan of some of the West’s weaknesses. What are Turkey’s next steps? It will certainly not be the last such venture. Erdoğan seems to be trying to complete the conquest of Constantinople and Pax Romana, to Islamize a most important Christian symbol. In a sense, this is a wedge for Western values, for the Western world, because the Western world is a continuation and successor of Rome, and Byzantium, since Eastern Rome is also Rome.
Estonian Orientalist and Egyptologist Sergei Stadnikov (1956-2015) rightly stated in 2013: “The unique building of humanity, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia (in Greek “Holy Wisdom”), rightly belongs to the top list of UNESCO cultural monuments. But in addition to culture, this historical-cultural object has also acquired an ideological-political dimension over the last fifteen years. Namely, the campaign to return the former Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire’s main church to its original owners, the Greek Orthodox Church, is still ongoing, albeit in a relatively modest form” (Stadnikov 2013). It now seems that the spiritual conquest of Constantinople has come to a triumphant end, and so has the President of Turkey. Hagia Sophia will become a mosque, so Greece, the Orthodox Church and the whole Christian world will no longer have any right to it and no hope of getting it back as a church, for example. Orthodoxy is the main religion in Turkey’s environs and Greece is not enthusiastic about such a decision, calling it the Ankara provocation. The Greek government has strongly condemned the Turkish government’s decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a World Heritage Mosque, and the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis pointed out: “This decision, coming 85 years after it was declared a museum, is an insult to its ecumenical character. It also constitutes a choice that similarly insults all those who recognize the monument as part of world culture.” (Anastasiou 2020)
Dessert à la russe
But the fact that Hagia Sophia is be turned into a mosque is also a message to another country where Orthodox religion has always played a big role: Russia. This is a clear message to Moscow which has considered itself a Byzantine successor and Orthodox defender since the conquest of Constantinople, calling Moscow the Third Rome. The Russian Tsarist state and the Russian Empire saw their historic mission as liberating Constantinople from the Turks (Udam 2011: 115). For example, the second son of Emperor Paul I (ruled 1796–1801) was named Konstantin Pavlovich (1779–1831) because his grandmother Catherine II (ruled 1762–1796) dreamed of becoming a restored Byzantine ruler (the so-called Greek project) and the Roman emperor (a direct reference to Constantine the Great, who built Constantinople).
Vladimir Putin’s reaction is remarkable, however, in that it is quite indifferent. He is not interested in the real heritage of Byzantium or in Orthodoxy or culture. Moscow has emphasized that Hagia Sophia is merely a Turkish internal affair. Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov stressed that “the decision to turn St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Istanbul is Turkey’s internal affair” (Suchkov 2020). Putin now seems to have stepped down as defender of the Orthodox and Christian worlds. In recent years, Russia’s political elite has often declared that it defends the interests of Christians (especially Orthodox) and their values in Russia and around the world (духовные скрепы)—e.g., in Syria, in Ukraine, etc.—and has even sent out occupying forces under this pretext. Under the auspices of the “defense” of Orthodoxy in Ukraine (of course, in Ukraine Putin use also compatriots’ policy and other issues as tool against the Ukrainian state) the Kremlin has started a hybrid war, annexed Crimea and created the terrorist-separatist formations of so-called DNR and LNR in Donbass. In Syria the Russian propaganda machine has constantly shown how Russian troops save local Christians, and so on. While in the case of Ukraine and others Moscow has been disturbed by the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”), when it comes to Turkey Moscow does not see it as a problem.
The question is: why did Putin not protect Hagia Sophia? Because Hagia Sophia does not bring him political or other kinds of dividend. Defending Hagia Sophia is not useful for Putin’s regime at least in the current situation. There will be a confrontation with Ankara, but Moscow is not interested in that. Thus, Moscow’s interests are clearly visible: more or less normal relations with Ankara are currently a much higher priority for Moscow than Hagia Sophia and the entire Christian heritage in the Turkish territories. This again shows Moscow’s ambiguity and ignorance. When a little-known symbol of the Soviet occupation, the so-called “Aljoša”, was transported from Tõnismäe in Tallinn to the military cemetery in April 2007 Moscow made a big fuss and all propaganda channels started information attacks against Estonia, its government and people. In addition, the Kremlin tried to destabilize Estonia’s security during the events of the Bronze Night in April 2007. But now when one of the world’s greatest symbols of Christianity and the Roman Empire is once again being turned into a mosque the Kremlin does not blink an eye and ignores what is happening. This is Realpolitik à la russe.
Anastasiou, S. Greece Calls Erdogan’s Decision on Hagia Sophia a “Provocation”. GreekReporter, 10.7.2020, https://greece.greekreporter.com/2020/07/10/greece-calls-erdogans-decision-on-hagia-sophia-a-provocation/ (accessed 18.7.2020).
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Colborne, M.; Edwards, M. Erdogan Is Making the Ottoman Empire Great Again. Foreign Policy, 22.6.2020
Gall, C 2020. Erdogan Signs Decree Allowing Hagia Sophia to Be Used as a Mosque Again. The New York Times, 10.7.2020, updated 15.7.2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/10/world/europe/hagia-sophia-erdogan.html (accessed 18.7.2020).
Stadnikov, S. 2013. Konstantinoopoli piiramine kestab ikka veel.1.7.2013, Delfi.ee, https://www.delfi.ee/archive/sergei-stadnikov-konstantinoopoli-piiramine-kestab-ikka-veel?id=66376794 (accessed 18.7.2020).
Suchkov, M.A. 2020. Why did Moscow call Ankara’s Hagia Sophia decision “Turkey’s internal affair”? Middle East Institute, 14.7.2020, mei.edu/publications/why-did-moscow-call-ankaras-hagia-sophia-decision-turkeys-internal-affair (accessed 8.7.2020).
Udam, H. 2011. Türgi. Teekond läbi Türgi tsivilisatsiooni ajaloo, Johannes Esto Ühing.