Don't Turn Turkey's Iconic Hagia Sophia Back Into A Mosque

From church to mosque to museum ... back to mosque?
From church to mosque to museum ... back to mosque?
Karin Karakasli

ISTANBUL -- In our divided existences, everyone lives their own reality, with their own priorities. Right now, the demand that this city's Hagia Sophia museum be transformed into a mosque has suddenly become the singular issue for a certain segment of the Turkish population.

The Anatolia Youth Association announced a gathering at the iconic location with slogans such as "take your prayer mat and come" and "we meet at the Hagia Sophia Mosque for the morning prayer." And so the group gathered at the Hagia Sophia Square, coming from all around Istanbul and the surrounding province before disbanding around midnight following a collective prayer.

"Let the chains break," was their slogan. "Let Hagia Sophia be open." This organization, which uses prayer for activism, deserves a closer look -- for while the association seems to prioritize religion, this issue is actually quite political.

Let us put the debates revolving around it aside for a moment, and remember that the Hagia Sophia is a magical place before all. It offers a state of eternal encounter to the visitors with its wondrous icons and calligraphy referring to both Christianity and Islam. This is a middle world where people can place themselves without any prerequisite identification.

It reminds you of the fluidity of life, its changes, and the endless tale of humanity under the watchful eye of angels.

However, it also is imbued with codes, and has been a symbol of power since the times of Byzantium. The Hagia Sophia as such holds utterly different meanings and specific importance beyond the universal pleasures that may be tasted by any given individual.

As can be seen by the pompous symbolic celebrations and the unending urban renewal projects, Turkey can't get enough of the continuous re-conquering of Istanbul. Just such a power play is once again at work over the Hagia Sophia.

Equal, endless, unique

Hagia Sophia, the biggest church in Istanbul from the Byzantine Empire, is actually the third of three churches that have been built on the site. This place of worship where the emperors were crowned is the "Megali tou Hristou Ekklisia" or "the Great Church of the Messiah," as mentioned in the recent statement of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, and is "known as such in the whole world of Christianity."

Hagia Sophia accompanied the history of Istanbul since the 4th Century. It was transformed into a mosque in 1453 after the Ottomans conquered the city, and now stands open as a museum since 1935. So, what is this recent activism about?

Hagia Sophia always has been a defining symbol for political Islamic movements to score votes and boost reputations. There is the illusion that reopening the place as a mosque would amount to a return to the glory of the days of the Ottoman Empire.

On the other hand, the Hagia Sophia is the exact definition of a century-long alternative history for the Orthodox Christians. Therefore the recent debate should be analyzed in the context of the upcoming presidential elections, aware of the possibility that this may be used as a trump card.

Bartholomew I saw the matter from this angle and made the following statement to the weekly Agos newspaper on May 29: "We believe the Hagia Sophia should remain as a museum because this magnificent work of architecture with an exceptional place in world civilization should be open to and visited by everybody this way." He also recalled that it was transformed into a museum by the will of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk -- a decision which was accepted by all sides.

The Patriarch added that if its status were to be changed and if it were to reopen as a place of worship, "it should not be forgotten that it was built as a church, and it should be opened as a church."

Keeping the Hagia Sophia out of election politics requires it to be simply kept as a museum, says the Cultural Heritage Watch Platform, which also released a joint statement signed by many academics:

"The Hagia Sophia is included among the leading religious, artistic and political symbols of Istanbul and Turkey, as well as the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and Europe," the statement read. "The Hagia Sophia remaining as a museum that is welcoming all of its visitors is a peaceful and inclusive act that reflects the universal value of this unique monument without alienating any part of its many layered history. Preserving this distinguished artifact as the shared heritage of the histories of Istanbul and the world depends on the museum status being kept."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!