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Erasing histories: why Turkey’s Hagia Sophia should remain a museum

President Erdogan’s decision to reconvert the building into a mosque is a further move against religious pluralism.

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Istanbul is a city with a rich, diverse and mesmerising history, and yet, a poor memory. You can walk the streets for hours without coming across a single plaque or statue about the complexities of its urban heritage. You can pass by an Ottoman cemetery without having the slightest clue, if you are unable to read the tombstones, as to the people who have been buried there. Turkey, in general, is today a society of collective amnesia. Its entire relationship with the past is full of ruptures, convenient forgettings, silences.

The result is a vacuum in historical knowledge and understanding, which is then filled in with either Islamist-religious or ultranationalist interpretations of the past – or, too often, a dangerous combination of both. And while it is true that every nation-state has its official version of the past, written through the eyes of the victors, there is a difference between how a democracy and a non-democracy record their histories.

In a functioning democracy you can encounter a multiplicity of stories – histories and her-stories – rather than a single account. You can walk into a bookshop and buy books that give voice to silences, shed light on what the dominant narrative wants you to forget. The authors of those books, or the journalists behind those articles, are not arrested or prosecuted.

In my native Turkey, however, the dominant narrative of history shouts extremely loud, silencing everything else. The way history is being taught at school and propagated through popular culture, systematically erases minorities, multiplicities and truths: what was life like for women in the Ottoman Empire? Or for slaves? Or for Armenians, Jews, Greeks, Alevis, Romani, Kurds, heterodox mystics? Anyone who was pushed to the periphery; what were their stories like?

It is against this background that we need to think about the Turkish government’s recent decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

An architectural, cultural and artistic masterpiece, Hagia Sophia is unique in so many ways. It also has enormous symbolic value. Built during the Byzantine Empire as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, it was finished with remarkable speed by 537, in just under six years. Such was Emperor Justinian’s desire to prove his grandeur to the world, that he is said to have exclaimed, upon entering the completed building, "Oh Solomon! I have outdone thee."

It remained an Eastern Orthodox church for nearly 900 years (except for a brief time when the Crusaders converted it into a Catholic church) until Ottoman Turks captured Istanbul in 1453. After the conquest of the city, Sultan Fatih turned it into a mosque, and thus it stayed for about 480 years. Forced conversions of this kind did not only happen in Istanbul. From Spain to Greece, there are many mosques that were converted to churches; the Great Mezquita of Cordoba is one prominent example. What was unusual about Hagia Sophia was that in 1934, under Ataturk, with Turkey becoming a modern nation-state, the historical building was transformed into a museum, a secular space. And this is the legacy that Erdogan is now determined to overturn.

The inside of Hagia Sophia, full of exquisite works of art, is just as breathtaking as its architecture. The Byzantines, who regarded themselves as the natural successors to ancient Rome, decorated the site with precious mosaics emphasizing their claim. The one that has always impressed me the most depicts Empress Zoe, with her large eyes, impressive nose and sharp intelligence; a powerful female ruler who had three husbands (requiring the tiles for their faces to be changed each time to match). Another is of the Virgin Mary holding the child Christ in her lap. To such elaborate Byzantine mosaics were then added beautiful works of Islamic calligraphy. Above the massive columns, a verse from the Quran: "Allah is the light of the heavens and the Earth." All of them inhabit the same space.

And that was the remarkable distinctiveness of Hagia Sophia. Not what it had been as a church, not what it had been as a mosque, but the fact that it had, throughout its trajectory, brought various cultures, faith and secularism, cosmopolitan heritage and local history together, weaving religion, politics, culture and art. It is this complex history that was pushed aside on Friday 10 July, when President Erdogan ordered the building to be opened for Muslim prayers after a court revoked its status as a museum. The 1,500-year-old building, a UNESCO World Heritage site, used to be managed by the Ministry of Culture, but has now been delegated to the Religious Affairs Directorate.

A majority of the Turkish public believe political gain lies behind the decision to whip up a debate around the subject, according to a Metropoll survey. Turkey’s economy, in decline for so long, has been further burdened by rising unemployment and the coronavirus crisis, and with this latest move President Erdogan appears to be appealing to his traditional base. “The right of the Turkish nation to Hagia Sophia is not less than that of those who built it 1,500 years ago; it is even greater,” he reportedly said in a speech to the nation about the announcement, with many on social media later hailing the decision as a “second conquest”. Some opposition leaders even joined the chorus by saying they would like to attend the first prayer.

Meanwhile Turkey’s minorities, secularists, liberals and progressives watch with a heavy heart. The Armenian-Turkish MP Garo Paylan wrote on Instagram: this is “a sad day for Christians and for all who believed in a pluralist Turkey.” Erdogan “can’t give bread to the people, and he’s giving more radicalism to the Muslim majority,” he added in an interview with NBC news. Even before the decision was announced, Faik Ozturk, spokesperson for Turkey’s main opposition party, noted that those who publicly criticized the proposal risked being labelled as traitors to their nation.

But none of that changes the fact that Hagia Sophia is older than any government. This gem of architecture, art and history does not belong to a single tribe or any political party, left or right. Hagia Sophia belongs to both Christians and Muslims. And more than that, it belongs to all humanity. The present generation of Turks does not own it; we can only be its temporary guardians for the future. This unique building therefore, with all its stories, should have remained a museum, a secular space, its massive doors open to everyone, people of all creeds and none – for its dome is big enough to embrace all humankind.

Elif Shafak’s most recent novel is “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” (Viking)