Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Museum or Mosque?

leave a comment »

While in Turkey last year, I had the opportunity to visit Iznik, known better to Christians as Nicea.  In my travel blog I discussed the trip, which included a visit to the ruins of the church of Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), the site of 7th and final ecumenical council in the pre-schism church.   This history of the building is typical of many ancient churches in Turkey.  The present 11th century structure was built as a church but was converted to a mosque during Ottoman times.  The building eventually fell into disrepair and disuse and was  a ruined shell when it was reopened as a state run museum in 2007.  However, in  October 2011 it was refurbished in order to serve as a mosque.

I wrote the following observations shortly after my visit to Iznik:

We visited Iznik on a Friday, the Muslim day of communal prayer.  Outside the Green Mosque, which was already filled to capacity, men lined up dozens of rows deep for the mid-day prayer.  The call to prayer echoed from the Ottoman minaret of what a sign now identifies as the Aya Sofya Mosque, however the area was nearly abandoned, with just a few men hanging around outside.  It certainly appears that locals prefer to pray at other mosques, even when they are overflowing, rather than use this church turned mosque turned ruin turned museum turned mosque.  My pious host family was shocked and surprised to hear that the church-museum was now a mosque.  Because hardly anyone actually uses it as a prayer space, the re-sanctification of the building made little real impact on our ability to visit and look around the building.  There is even a small benefit to the visitor.  Since the building is now a mosque rather than a church, there is no entrance fee.

The lack of interest in using the building as a prayer a space that I observed, combined with the opposition from locals as reported in the Times article convinced me that this kind of “re-Islamization” of historic buildings was unlikely to become a trend.  However there have recently been actions taken toward converting a second recently restored Aya Sofya church-cum-mosque  in the Black Sea city of Trabzon.  In both cases the impetuous for the conversion of restored churches to mosques has come from the General Directorate of Foundations, a somewhat shadowy government agency which is officially in charge of Islamic religious foundations.  In the last year the General Directorate has also taken up what was formerly an extremely fringe position and has begun advocating for the re-conversion of the most famous Aya Sofya into a mosque.

News of moves made toward converting the Trabzon and Istanbul Aya Sofyas forced me to reconsider my dismissal of the Iznik conversion as an isolated incident.  An article Thursday by Andrew Finkel characterizes the Iznik’s Aya Sofya’s conversion as well as the threat to convert the two others into mosques as another sign of creeping Islamization and general government mismanagement of cultural treasures.  I share Finkel’s despair regarding the irreparable damage done to historic sites.  Ill conceived restorations are all too common in Turkey and little has been done to reconcile the problem.  The General Directorate is indisputably overstepping the bounds of its authority as well as acting against both the interests and wishes of the Turkish people.  Though I believe most accusations of creeping Islamization in Turkey are overblown if not downright false, in the specific case of the General Directorate it appears that there is Islamic ideological as well as Turkish nationalist bent to their recent actions (see Turkish-Islamic Synthesis).  By returning these buildings to use as mosques the Directorate is not only creating more Muslim religious spaces, but imposing a Turkish and Islamic history on the buildings and the cities themselves, whitewashing both the Byzantine Christian history and the Ottoman cosmopolitan legacies.

Despite the damage that General Directorate has done and may still do to Turkey’s historic churches, I don’t yet believe there is reason to panic regarding the  Aya Sofya in Istanbul.  In setting its sights on one of the world’s most famous landmarks, and Turkey’s most visited site, the Directorate may have set the stage for its own undoing.  The ecumenical service cited in the beginning of Finkel’s piece did not propose that all Turkey’s important churches that were then in use as mosques be returned to the Orthodox community, just Istanbul’s Aya Sofya.  The congregation that gathered in 1921 were not interested in reclaiming the Aya Sofya for Christendom just because of its fame, but because it symbolized a lost outpost of Christianity.  “Capturing” it would pave the way for the reconquest of this territory from the Turkish Muslims.  Today, the conversion of the Aya Sofya Museum into a mosque would serve a similar symbolic purpose for Turkey’s fringe Islamists.  The Aya Sofya was “secularized” when it was opened as a Museum in the early days of the Republic by Ataturk himself.  It therefore has subsequently come to symbolize the secular values of the Republic as opposed to officially Muslim Ottoman state.  The reversion of the space into a mosque would be an unquestionable victory for Islamistsover the nearly sacred principle of Turkish secularism.

Erdogan may be happy to allow the General Directorate to quietly go about its Islamization campaign in small towns, but he could never allow such a public affront to the principles of the Turkish state and the near sacred legacy of Ataturk.  Additionally, Turkey cannot risk alienating its Western, Christian allies during a period of such regional turmoil.  Whether framed as an affront to the separation of church and state or against Christianity as a religion, US public outcry against the conversion of Istanbul’s Aya Sofya would be swift and loud.  The US would certainly exert diplomatic pressure to keep the conversion from going through.  If the General Directorate would succeed in getting to the planning stages of the conversion, Erdogan would be forced to finally check the out of control actions of the Directorate.  If the Directorate is smart, it will not force Erdogan’s hand in such an international crisis.  Right now, except for a handful of tourists and dedicated Turkey watchers, the world is largely oblivious to the archaeological, cultural and economic destruction it is causing.  The Directorate could potentially go on with its museum to mosque campaign indefinitely, unless it lets its power go to its head.

*A previous version of this post had stated that the Trabzon Aya Sofya was also a ruin.  It has been recently restored but was an intact building before restoration began.  My references to its condition has been corrected.

Advertisements

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: