Why Hagia Sophia matters


The recent events revolving around Hagia Sophia and the final decision by the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for its use as a mosque mean a great deal not only for Christians but the entirety of the West and its culture. İbrahim Kalın, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson, mentioned that the monument will absolutely remain a museum alongside its use as a mosque and retain its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site; similarly, as he mentioned, to  Notre Dame cathedral or the Sacré-Cœur basilica. Reading between the lines one can detect one important difference. These two monuments remained, alongside their museum status, representatives of the catholic faith. Their prior and original purpose. Their natural use according to their architectural soul and historic value. If not for the blatant hypocrisy one would expect Hagia Sophia to be restored into a Christian Orthodox church once again. However, this move by the Turkish president bears great symbolism and significance.

Erdoğan during the past five years has been stirring Turkey into an independent route concerning international diplomacy and foreign affairs, while balancing the country between various spheres of influence. In order to achieve this balance, which admittedly has managed quite successfully, the Turkish president needs power. Both in the interior and the exterior. So far we witnessed a number of moves that solidified stability within the country, especially after the attempted coup d’état in 2016 (which have been recognized by many analysts as authoritarian measures), as well as the involvement of Turkey in various conflicts such as Syria and more recently Libya. By achieving stability within and taking initiative in the geopolitical scene, Erdoğan is halfway through his quest for power which optimally would have Turkey established as an independent power player in the region, free from threats (such as a possible Kurdish state) and involved in all economic activity ongoing both in the middle east and in East-Mediterranean. Thus, deciding unilaterally for the fate of a world monument such as Hagia Sophia, is a great projection of this power.

Of course, its not only a projection of future power, but undoubtedly shows the already achieved victories of the Turkish president and the Turkish people. Victories over directions and propositions from third countries, victories over deciding for one’s own future but ultimately victories against the West. At a first glance it may be of little importance to a German citizen whether an Orthodox monument is used as a mosque in Turkey, but it does loudly state the victory of the Turkish and Muslim people over the dying culture of the West. It proudly states that Western religious culture is not only dying but is unable to turn the tide within its borders, equally as it is unable to intervene outside of its borders. And maybe the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, announced that: “It is a decision that offends all those who recognize the monument as a World Heritage Site”, but his words echo the inability of Europe to show that she has a robust culture of her own beyond strong markets and powerful economies.

Erdoğan’s move also bears a political meaning for the interior of Turkey where it looks to gain more support from a growing traditionalist Muslim-Turkish population as well as a Muslim-migrant population from the entirety of the middle east, that goes through Turkey to reach Europe. The role of these migrant tides are of great value both as voters and supporters within Turkey and probably even more so as means to apply pressure on European countries such as Germany and France that already have Muslim populations of more than 5% and more than 8% respectively.

The decision to use of Hagia Sophia as a mosque shows the way for the future. A future that will undoubtedly contain frictions of greater magnitude between Turkey and Europe. Finally, a word concerning Greece. Her history is too long and too great to weep over a lost opportunity, or an empty insult, especially so since Hagia Sophia was turned again into a mosque in her past. It is a common tactic of the victor and the powerful to claim their prize. It is uncommon, however, to fixate in the past, to zealously defend one’s heritage but be unable or unwilling to create a new one. Greece has two roads ahead. Seek the uncompromising friendship of Turkey through great concessions in the East-Mediterranean and plan a brighter future through a major development of her military, economy and culture or seek a confrontation with unpredictable outcomes.

P.K. Komnenos
P.K. Komnenos
Freelance opinion writer. Major in organizational psychology. Major in Chinese history and culture. Graduated from the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, the University of Exeter and Fudan University of Shanghai. Contact at: linoskomnas[at]yahoo.com