Event Summary: The Restoration of Ayasofya’s (Hagia Sophia) Mosque Status
On Wednesday, July 29, 2020, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘The Restoration of Ayasofya’s (Hagia Sophia) Mosque Status.’ The discussion featured Akif Kirecci, Dean of Faculty of Political Science and International Relations at Social Sciences University of Ankara, and Cagri Erhan, Rector at Altinbas University. The panel was moderated by Kilic Kanat, Research Director at SETA DC.
Kirecci began by explaining the cultural importance of Hagia Sophia. The Ottomans admired this architectural structure and considered it the center of their empire. As a result, five Ottoman Sultans are buried in Hagia Sophia along with nearly 150 members of the Ottoman royal family. Architecturally, this building inspired many Ottoman architects and its influence is seen in other Ottoman mosques around Turkey and the former Ottoman empire. For generations, the conservative population in Turkey has wanted to reconvert this site into a mosque in consideration of its important symbolism. Hagia Sophia has been registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, with an agreement between the Turkish government and UNESCO about preserving the building. Kirecci noted that if the site is a museum, then the minister of culture and tourism is in charge, but if it is a mosque, then the director of religious affairs oversees the site. When the conversion occurred, there was a protocol prepared and signed by these two officials describing the concerns of UNESCO in regards to the historical site. Turkey’s main goal is to preserve the site and make it accessible to people around the world.
Erhan drew attention to the historical challenges faced when Hagia Sophia was originally turned into a museum. After bureaucratic disagreements, it was determined that the building was not under the protection of foundation law, so it could legally be converted into a mosque. The decree of the status change began with correspondence between the minister of education and the head of foundations. In order to preserve Hagia Sophia’s history and leave it open to the people, the officials decided to change its status from a mosque to a museum. Erhan insists that many people are viewing this decision through the wrong lens, with media outlets falsely claiming that Erdogan decided to change the building from a church to a mosque. He made it clear that the court is not changing the decree of 1934; the courts are now stating that the decree from the past was based upon false knowledge. In the US, he said that the upcoming elections are causing politicians to change the narrative in order to garner the votes of Greek Orthodox church members and other religious communities. In the end, the status of Hagia Sophia will not affect the course of US-Turkish relations since the two countries have far more important issues to tackle and greater opportunities for cooperation.