Last Friday, Muslim services were held under the great dome of the Hagia Sophia for the first time in 86 years. For some, this was a moment of great joy, a return of Islam to one of its great spiritual homes. For others, it was a catastrophe – a victory for cultural regression and exclusion. It’s far from the first time the Hagia Sophia’s function has changed. It was built to be a church and served that function for 900 years. It then served as a mosque for half that amount of time following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, before becoming secularized as a museum in 1934. But even if change is nothing new for the building, there are good reasons to be worried by this development. What will become of the beautiful and irreplaceable Byzantine mosaics – imagery that is not allowed in a mosque? Will tourists and scholars still be granted adequate access to this important UNESCO World Heritage Site? And will women – even Muslim women – ever be allowed under the great dome again?
Overarching these specific worries is the tone and message of the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. For this seems to be President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s own version of a Reconquista.
Reconquista is the term used for the Christian re-conquest of Spanish lands that had been taken from them by Muslims in the 8th century. To the Reconquistadors, this wasn’t about expanding territory. It was about taking back what they believed to be rightfully theirs. To Erdogan, the conversion of the Hagia Sophia is just such a Reconquista; it is Islam’s reclamation of a building taken from them by the secularization of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (it also seems to be a brazen attempt to mobilize Erdogan’s base, but I’ll leave that to the political pundits).
For the Hagia Sophia this is, to a point, business as usual. It was built by the Christian emperor Justinian as a symbol of his ‘conquest’ over rebels who had almost deposed him in 532. It was conquered by Mehmet in 1453 and turned into a triumphant symbol of Islam. And it was conquered again by Atatürk in 1934, in the name of the modernized, secular state of Turkey.
So why worry? Because Reconquistadors tend to want to leave their mark. Look at the two most iconic buildings of Moorish Spain, the Great Mosque of Cordoba and the Alhambra Palace in Granada. Both remained intact for some time after the Reconquista, but in both cases the temptation to make the re-conquered place more obviously their own became too strong to resist. Just as male dogs must pee on a fire hydrant, conquerors seem to need to muck about with buildings. In Cordoba, this was the result:
It’s not that the Renaissance cathedral inserted into the mosque is ugly. But it is a grotesque, violent intrusion into a building of otherwise extraordinary beauty and unity. And it speaks unmistakably of triumph over the other – rubs it in, even. It doesn’t just sit there, it gloats.
Similarly, at the Alhambra, the Renaissance palace and chapel remind me of the old song from Sesame Street, “One of these things/Is not like the others/One of these things/Just doesn’t belong.” The Renaissance buildings loom above the Moorish complex like an alien invader from another planet. By itself, the 16th-century work could be considered handsome enough. But here, it is an act of architectural and cultural violence, an aggressive emblem of colonization. If it could speak, its first words would be “we won.”
Will some mutilation like this be the fate of the Hagia Sophia? I (and a lot of others) sure hope not, but only time will tell. Even if one trusts Erdogan (which many people don’t), there are still generations to come who may give in to the temptation to claim the Hagia Sophia not just as their mosque, but as their trophy. And we all like to have our names carved on our trophies.