July 2, 2016. The first call to Muslim prayer from inside Hagia Sophia temple after over eight decades. Since 1935, by decision of the founder and first President of the Turkish state Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the temple has been functioning as a museum.
Turkish President Recep Erdogan has decided to include Hagia Sophia in his means of promoting his neo-Ottoman agenda and since 2016 he has been gradually working towards this direction. Under the current debates around Hagia Sophia’s permanent opening as a mosque, it seems that this strategic plan is finally on the homestretch.
Political Motives Behind Erdogan’s Moves
Erdogan has been utilizing every tool available to reestablish Turkey’s position as a regional key player with independent policy, and at the same time as a champion and guarantor of the Muslim world, fitting this plan in his neo-Ottoman context. The debate around Hagia Sophia serves four vital purposes for the Turkish President.
Firstly, Erdogan is looking to consolidate and satisfy his popular and electoral base. AKP supporters are paying great attention to Erdogan’s moves and are firmly backing the leader of their party and the country’s President, exactly for serving the aforementioned neo-Ottoman agenda. At the same time the voters of Bahçeli’s MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) are enthusiastically supporting a mindset, where the Turkish power is being highlighted, especially when such moves can be perceived as a direct provocation against Greece. MHP is Erdogan’s main partner in the governmental coalition with 49 elected MPs in the Grand National Assembly of Turkey.
Eradicating the Kemalist Legacy
At the same time the Turkish President is still working to eradicate the Kemalist legacy from the country. With a very different approach towards regional and international politics, Erdogan is reestablishing Turkey’s presence very differently than the secular Western-guided Kemalist policy. In this context, Erdogan is using the Hagia Sophia issue, to deliver another direct hit to the heritage from the Kemal era, considering that the first Turkish President was the one to turn Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum.
Additionally, President Erdogan wants to proceed to another two-fold projection of power. On the one hand he would like to show that the Turkish policy is independent and unaffected by foreign major powers, taking into account the international criticism he has caused due to this initiative around Hagia-Sophia, as we will examine. At the same time the Turkish President is trying to highlight the pan-Islamic role of Turkey, by turning a landmark building for the Orthodox Christianity and a unique cultural monument into a mosque.
The Significance for Greece
The Hagia Sophia represents a landmark for Hellenism and Orthodox Christianity worldwide. The temple was first built in 330 AD by the first Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Great in the newly founded Constantinople — literally meaning Constantine’s city and today’s Istanbul — which would constitute the capital of the new Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium. Almost 200 years after the establishment of the Hagia Sophia church by Constantine the Great, Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great rebuilt the grandiose temple at the same site and under the same name.
Hagia Sophia would remain a symbol of dominance and power of the Byzantine Empire, Orthodoxy and Hellenism for approximately 1000 years until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when the Muslim Ottomans conquered the Byzantine capital. This event essentially sealed the fate of the Eastern Roman Empire and signaled the rise of Ottoman dominance in the wider region.
The Greek element across those territories would remain under Ottoman rule for almost four centuries, yet the Hagia Sophia temple and the aspirations around the reconstitution of their once robust presence in the area would persist among the strong desires of the conquered Greek and Orthodox Christian populations of the Ottoman Empire. Since the early 20th century, when the Kingdom of Greece abolished Ottoman rule and the Greek state gradually expanded to achieve its modern form, Hagia Sophia remained a point of reference for all Greeks. It was a mutual inspiration, regardless of their place of origin or residence, always associated with the Great Idea, the very concept that set the foundations for the contemporary Greek state.
Amidst the Ottoman collapse in the early 1900s, the strategy of recapturing territory where vast Greek populations were located has been the top priority for the Greek governments of the time, with Constantinople (Istanbul) and Hagia Sophia being the eventual and ultimate goal. This goal, however, remained unfulfilled, to the great disappointment of many Greek people.
International Reaction and Criticism to Erdogan’s Decision
Further to the foreseeable opposition from Greece, several other major countries have reacted to the Turkish moves, urging that because Hagia Sophia represents a rare cultural treasure, a part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it should remain permanently open to the public and visitors who come from around the globe to see this fascinating place.
US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo openly criticized any intentions to turn Hagia Sophia to a mosque, and insisted that the temple should maintain its current status. The Russian side has also emphasized the cultural and historical significance of Hagia Sophia. Spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova asserted that any decisions on the status of the site should seriously take into account the aforementioned factors. The reaction from the Russian Orthodox Church has been even harsher stating that a potential reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque would be unacceptable. For its part, France has declared that the site should remain open to all under any circumstances. All the above statements are indicative of the negative sentiment that Ankara has fueled, but at the same time they also clearly demonstrate how Erdogan’s unpredictable moves in the international arena can affect the attitude of the major players towards Turkey.
What to Expect from Ankara
At the moment, the Hagia Sophia question rests with the Turkish Highest Court, the Council of State, which will decide upon the status of the iconic temple in approximately two weeks’ time from now. According to the current information available it is possible that the Council of State could also pass the final decision back to the Turkish President. If that’s the case then we should anticipate that Erdogan will proceed with his plans. It is particularly likely Erdogan will move forward as planned judging from his recent statements, where he made clear that Hagia Sophia is an internal affair and any foreign involvement would directly target the sovereignty of the country.
Erdogan has proved that he is willing to follow his agenda in much riskier situations and even in cases where Turkey has been threatened with economic sanctions. With regards to Hagia Sophia the international reaction would be limited to some temporary criticism, which is nothing Erdogan can’t handle. Therefore, if the Turkish President believes that such a move would serve his political interests described earlier, and unless he is firmly blocked by the Council of the State, the possibility of seeing this historical monument turning once again into a mosque definitely remains on the table.