Turkey’s senior administrative court issued a ruling on 1 July that annulled the 1934 decision of the Turkish Council of Ministers to transform Hagia Sophia Mosque into a museum. It was another step in the secularisation of the Republic of Turkey under its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
“The decision was taken to hand over the management of the [Hagia Sophia] Mosque… to the Religious Affairs Directorate and open it for worship,” said the court. The judgement was made in response to a petition filed in 2005 by the Istanbul NGO the Permanent Foundations Service to Historical Artefacts and Environment Association, which argued that the 1934 change of the mosque into a museum was illegal.
According to the NGO, Hagia Sophia forms part of a religious foundation — a Waqf — established by Sultan Mehmet II, the Ottoman leader who conquered Constantinople, as it was then, in 1453. The historic structure was at the time a cathedral.
The court concluded that Mehmet II’s deed described the building as a mosque so that “its use outside this character is not possible legally” and decided that “the cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with the law.” Despite some local and international criticism, Turkish President Recipe Tayyip Erdogan signed the decree and moved formal responsibility for the building and land to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century as a cathedral for the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the building witnessed several dramatic changes. In 1443, with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople by the 19-year-old Sultan Mehmet II, it was turned into a mosque.
After the conquest, explains Egyptian historian Dr Raghib Al-Serjani, the Sultan saw that the Christians sought refuge in the cathedral. He allowed them to practice their religious life normally. Citing several historical sources, the Sultan left all of the churches in the city untouched and performed his first prayer there outside Hagia Sophia before asking the bishops if he could buy the land and building.
The bishops agreed, and accepted the Sultan’s offer; he paid from his personal wealth and gave orders that the building be turned into a mosque. The Christian authorities moved into another church.
Greece and Russia were among the countries which expressed anger at the move to return Hagia Sophia’s legal status to that of a mosque. Greek Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said that it was an “open provocation to the civilised world” and charged that this “absolutely confirms that there is no independent justice” in Turkey.
Meanwhile, Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, called the action “a mistake” and said that “turning it into a mosque will not do anything for the Muslim world. It does not bring nations together, but on the contrary brings them into collision.”
Turkish historian Salim Agdoghan told Al Jazeera that Greece and Russia ignore the fact that Hagia Sophia and the surrounding area became the “personal property” of Sultan Mehmet II, who bequeathed them as religious endowments for all Muslims around the world. The legal deed confirming this is still in the archives in Ankara.
It was the norm at the time of the conquest of Constantinople that all property in the territory conquered by war became the property of the conqueror. If it was a relatively peaceful conquest, then the sanctity of the lives of the inhabitants and their property was protected. Christians were invited to return to Constantinople and carry on as before. Moreover, Sultan Mehmet asked to buy Hagia Sophia and paid for it when the Christian authorities accepted his offer.
This is in stark contrast to what happened to mosques in Greece, hundreds of which were demolished. Muslims have been prevented from saving the few which are left, and many have no place to perform their prayers.
An official statement from UNESCO has said that its World Heritage Committee will review Hagia Sophia’s status, saying it was “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialogue nor notification beforehand.” The body has called on the Turkish authorities “to open a dialogue without delay in order to avoid a step back from the universal value of this exceptional heritage whose preservation will be reviewed by the World Heritage Committee in its next session.”
Does UNESCO deal with Islamic heritage sites in other countries in the same way? Even those on the list of World Heritage Sites? Why has no action been taken against Israel which has stolen, destroyed or changed the status of dozens of Palestinian and Islamic heritage sites, including Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied Jerusalem and Ibrahimi Mosque in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron?
According to Jonathan Bell, vice-president of programmes for the World Monuments Fund, changing Hagia Sophia from a museum back to a mosque does not undermine its universal value. “The return of the Hagia Sophia to a place of active worship would not necessarily preclude World Heritage status,” he is reported by National Geographic to have said.
Nevertheless, whether Hagia Sophia is a museum or a mosque is not really the issue here. The world would be much happier if Turkey was still a secularised state, and all of the fine mosques in Istanbul and elsewhere were turned into museums, with perhaps weekly prayers allowed as a sop to the Muslims, and something for the tourists to gawk at. The Hagia Sophia move gives the world an opportunity to criticise and attack a rare Muslim head of state who does not bow down to US and Western domination over the Islamic world and Islamic property.
If the world really does care about changes to historic places of worship, then perhaps it should turn its attention to Cordoba, for example, where the great mosque was turned into a cathedral after the Christian conquest in 1492. Many other examples exist of churches which were once mosques; the shape of the bricked-up windows is a giveaway. Justice based on facts is needed around the world today, and the simple fact is that Hagia Sophia was purchased from the Christian authorities before being used as a mosque; it was not taken from them by force. Its legal status was clear, and Ataturk’s 1934 decision to turn it into a museum broke the law. The latest court decision is, therefore, simply restoring the building to its former legal status. Justice has been seen to be done.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.