Hagia Sophia – a mosque: causes and consequences

What does Hagia Sophia’s conversion into a mosque mean for us Christians? Photo: UOJ

Hagia Sophia's officially become a mosque, with all decisions made and papers signed. What are the causes and consequences? What conclusion should the Orthodox make?

Brief historical background

The very first Christian temple in the market Augusteôn Square in Constantinople was built by the Holy Equal-to-the-Apostles Emperor Constantine the Great approximately in 324-337. It burned repeatedly over the next several centuries and was then rebuilt. Finally, after a fire in 532, Emperor Justinian decided to build a huge cathedral that would symbolize the triumph of Christianity and the greatness of the Byzantine Empire. The construction was epic: the most famous architects and craftsmen were invited, the best materials were brought, 10,000 workers worked daily on the construction, which lasted 5 years and cost three annual incomes of the Byzantine Empire. According to the legend, Emperor Justinian, entering the built temple, exclaimed: "Solomon, I surpassed you!"

Later, the Church of Hagia Sophia was partially destroyed by earthquakes and was significantly rebuilt. On May 29, 1453, it was captured by the Turks and turned into a mosque. The frescoes and icons were partially destroyed, partly covered with plaster, under which they have been very well preserved. An interesting detail: the temple was considered the personal property of Sultan Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, and Mehmed sacrificed it before the death to the Almighty. For this reason, the conversion of Ayasofya into a museum is legally questionable.

But Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, did not pay much attention to that. He was building a secular Turkey, aiming at European integration, and in 1934 he signed a decree granting Hagia Sophia the status of a museum. The frescoes were cleared, the temple was restored and opened to tourists. Until now, Hagia Sophia has been the most visited attraction in Turkey.

In 2007, when Turkey lived in hopes for a speedy accession to the European Union and the then President of this country Abdullah Gül was an active supporter of European integration, a movement for the restoration of Hagia Sophia as a Christian church emerged in U.S. political circles. It is difficult to say how realistic this idea was then, but it did not go beyond the hearings in the U.S. Congress. And after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan acquired the Turkish presidential office, the pendulum swung in a completely opposite direction. On July 10, 2020, the Turkish president signed the decision to revert Hagia Sophia into an existing mosque.

Turkish President R. Erdoğan's document on the return of the status of a mosque to Hagia Sophia

Internal and external factors 

Recently, R. Erdoğan and the ruling party have been losing popularity among the people. The reason for this is negative trends in the country's economy, an increase in unemployment, a decrease in living standards, etc. The global economic problems have been complicated by domestic ones: the Neo-Ottomanism (Neo-Osmanism) policy pursued by the ruling party is the reason for the aggravation of relations between Turkey and almost all of its neighbours, as well as the United States and China. The same policy determines Turkish intervention in armed conflicts in Syria, Libya and Iraq. All this requires significant financial and material costs, as well as the strain of human resources of the country. Imperial ambitions are very expensive and not everyone is ready to pay for them. In addition, the coronavirus has largely undermined the Turkish economy. Therefore, R. Erdoğan, by his decision, seeks to raise his own rating and strengthen his domestic political position.

The policy of Neo-Ottomanism has two components: Turkey’s leadership in the Islamic world and Pan-Turkism, that is, the patronage of all Turkic (Turkoman) peoples, wherever they live. It is clear that the implementation of such a policy leads to numerous conflicts, both with states that also claim to be leaders in Islam and with states in whose territories the peoples whom Turkey considers Turkic live.

As is known, there are two major denominations of Islam, Shia and Sunni. Turkey professes Sunni form. And the main Sunni state is Saudi Arabia, where the main Muslim shrines are located: Mecca and Medina. But Saudi Arabia is now experiencing catastrophic economic problems due to falling oil prices and shrinking oil markets. 90% of Saudi Arabia’s budget is fed by oil revenues, and the distribution of this income among the indigenous population ensures stability due to the high level of welfare that we are used to observing. But today this idyll is over. The Saudis have a huge budget deficit and a rapidly growing public debt. Such phenomena always cause disorder in the state and stepping up the struggle for power. Plus, Saudi Arabia has many external enemies, from Iran to Israel, who will be very happy to push this state to a catastrophe. The United States has guaranteed the security of Saudi Arabia over the past decades, but America’s influence in the Middle East is rapidly declining, and the Trump administration’s foreign policy doctrine suggests the US’s self-removal from settling someone else’s conflicts.

Given the possible prospect of degradation, if not the destruction of Saudi Arabia and the diminution of its importance as a religious center, R. Erdoğan took a very reasonable step, turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Saudi Mecca and Medina may be, as they say now, in the belt of instability or even disaster. The next most important Muslim shrines – the mosques of Al-Aqsa and Qubbat As-Sakhrah (the Dome of the Rock) – are located in Israel, which not so long ago declared its exclusive sovereignty over all Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. And here the Turkish resident-sultan will take advantage of the Great Mosque of Ayasofya, which symbolizes the victory of Islam over the Christian world. And he himself, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, will be associated with the powerful conqueror Mehmed II, who at that time was indeed the leader of the Islamic world.

Given the possible prospect of degradation, if not the destruction of Saudi Arabia and the diminution of its importance as a religious center, R. Erdoğan took a very reasonable step, turning Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

In any case, R. Erdoğan’s move is a bid for leadership in the Islamic world, at least the Sunni one. Besides, Turkey is trying to become more than just a Muslim state: it wants to show the world such a model of interaction of the Islamic religion with the society and the state that would be very attractive and economically successful. Such a harmonious symbiosis of religiosity and secularism, which would be a role model for many countries and regions. Whether Turkey will succeed or not is not yet clear (rather it will not), but the decision to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque fully fits into these plans. That’s why the Turkish president, though not personally, but through a representative, said that Christian frescoes will not be destroyed or covered with plaster and tourists will still have access to Ayasofya as before.

Europe’s refusal

As already mentioned, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and Kemal Atatürk's coming to power, Turkey began to develop as a secular state aimed at the integration into Europe. This process was very difficult, but nevertheless, it has continued until today. In 2000, Turkey officially received the status of a candidate country for membership in the European Union, and negotiations on the terms of that membership were started. It can be said that the population, and especially the business elite of Turkey, expected rapid accession to the EU, the opening of markets, a flow of investments and other economic benefits. This expectation held back the development of Islamist sentiments in society. But the years went by, the EU was feeding Turkey with promises, neither refusing nor giving membership.

Around the beginning of the 2010s, Turkey began to realize that no one in the European Union was waiting for it. At that time there was even a joke: "Ukraine will join the EU after Turkey, and Turkey will never join the EU". When the Turkish elite finally realized the refusal of the European Union, the transformation of this country into a Muslim state became a matter of time, and the time was very short. Turkey inevitably swayed towards Islamization. And after the failed attempt of a coup d'etat in 2016, it just as inevitably swayed towards authoritarianism and strengthening the personal power of Erdoğan. The result of all this was the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

The Phanar factor

Patriarch Bartholomew at a reception with Turkish President R. Erdoğan

This can also be called the reason for what happened, although it is unknown whether the Patriarch of Constantinople would have been able to defend Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum if he had not made the big mistakes that he made. But Patriarch Bartholomew’s mistakes simply did not leave any hope for the diplomatic protection of the Church of Hagia Sophia.

Briefly, the Phanar’s head got engaged in political games and made a losing bet, namely, a bet on the American administration.

The U.S. is leaving the Middle East, the U.S. no longer performs the function of a world policeman, which was declared almost officially. The U.S. has neither the will nor the resources to continue its former policy of dominance in every corner of the globe. And after the U.S. actually betrayed its loyal ally in the region, the Kurds, it became clear what the Americans’ promises are worth. At the same time, Russia's influence in the Middle East has increased many times in the last 5 years. And this is not praise or agitation, but a fact recognized by all geopolitical forces and confirmed by all experts.

The Phanar’s head got engaged in political games and made a losing bet, namely, a bet on the American administration.

It cannot be said for sure that Russia would have been able to stop Erdoğan, but only Russia has such an influence in the region that would allow it to make such an attempt. But the Patriarch of Constantinople rudely and unambiguously pushed away both Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church by interfering in church affairs in Ukraine. Therefore, the Russian Foreign Ministry merely expressed its concern, and the words of the Moscow Patriarch, not reinforced by the Kremlin’s position, mean little to R. Erdoğan.

This is all reasoning from the human mind, but there is also a spiritual reason for what happened. The first time Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque in 1453 after the Greeks betrayed Orthodoxy to the Pope, signing the Union of Florence in 1439. The second time Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after Patriarch Bartholomew declared his claim to primacy in the Church and reinforced these claims with his non-canonical actions in Ukraine, which, in fact, violated the dogma of the Church. Moreover, the Patriarch unequivocally stated that the purpose of his activities was to unite with the Vatican. The analogies suggest themselves.

Also, the spiritual reason for what happened is that Europe has actually renounced Christianity as such. The same Greece, which today threatens Turkey with sanctions, legalizes same-sex marriages and introduces the lessons on same-sex relationships in primary school. The term "Christian civilization" can be found in protest statements against Turkey's decision by the governments of different countries. But "Christian civilization" is already history. Modern Western civilization has not been a Christian civilization for a long time. The active lobbying of LGBT people, the encouragement of abortions, sexual promiscuity cultivated by school programs, willingness to remove Christian symbols for the benefit of migrants, and so on.

Patriarch Bartholomew’s great friend Joe Biden, who has recently called on Erdoğan to reverse the decision on Sophia, is an active promoter of LGBT people and even held a wedding ceremony for same-sex couples at his home. In western civilization, we see a reduction in parishioners in churches and, as a result, the conversion of these temples to restaurants and so on, the displacement of God’s commandments and the Gospel spirit from all spheres of life. This is what characterizes modern post-Christian civilization. On the other hand, Islam is a religion that develops both qualitatively, increasing its influence on society, and quantitatively, due to the high birth rate in Muslim families.

Therefore, the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a very logical result. In other words, God's Will let this happen because Christians themselves gave up Christianity. Then why do they need the Hagia Sophia Cathedral? To look at the frescoes with curious eyes and make selfies?

The conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a very logical result. In other words, God's Will let this happen because Christians themselves gave up Christianity.

Possible consequences

The question of whether R. Erdoğan will be able to achieve the goals that he set for himself in deciding on Hagia Sophia’s fate remains open. It is not enough just to turn a museum into a mosque. Most likely, he will enjoy success for some time, his ratings will increase a little, and then he will have to give the people something more material and tangible; and if it does not work, he will try to find an external enemy to which you can write off your own failures in economics and politics. A decision made is also not enough to gain leadership in the Muslim world. The Ayasofya Mosque may be a symbol, but it is not the reason for such leadership. The main role will be played by the very effective model of the economic, political and social order based on Islam that Turkey will try to offer the world. Again, it is far from the fact that it will happen.

Turkey's relations with Europe and America will not get much worse. Turkey will not be allowed in the EU in any case. The headache for Europe is the problem of illegal migrants, millions of whom flow through Turkey. The main irritant of Turkish-American relations is Turkey's purchase of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems, not the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Diplomatic protests will be limited to the expressions of "regret," "disappointment," and "concern". Sanctions may be introduced against certain Turkish officials, but who in our world can already be scared by sanctions?

A separate issue is Greece. Its bellicose statements are backed up by any real possibilities. The maximum it can do is to rename the Atatürk House Museum in Thessaloniki into the Pontic Greeks genocide museum, as stated by Greek Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni. Greece's military might is several times less than the Turkish one, and NATO is unlikely to allow the two of its members to fight each other.

As for Russia, its position is very restrained. In fact, it is a recognition of this issue as an internal affair of Turkey. It is unlikely that anyone will pay attention to the strong protest of the Russian Orthodox Church. What happened will not affect Russian-Turkish relations in any way.

The most affected party is the Patriarchate of Constantinople and personally Patriarch Bartholomew. A serious blow was made to their image and ambitions to lead the Orthodox World. It is possible to recollect the glorious Byzantine past as much as you like, but the reality is quite different. Can the hierarch, who could not prevent the secondary subjugation of the main Christian church by Muslims, claim primacy in the Church? This is not to mention the fact that the Orthodox faith recognizes the primacy in the Church solely for Jesus Christ.

The most affected party is the Patriarchate of Constantinople and personally Patriarch Bartholomew. A serious blow was made to their image and ambitions to lead the Orthodox World.

But the image of Patriarch Bartholomew was spoilt not so much by the very reversing Hagia Sophia into a mosque, but by the eloquent silence of the patriarch in this matter. After all, he has known about the upcoming decision for more than a month. During this time, everyone raised their voice in protest, including UNESCO, the USA, the EU, France, Local Churches and so on, while Patriarch Bartholomew was silent. And just before the event, he said that he was "in shock". But all eyes were on him and if he had shown unprecedented diplomatic activity in this matter, if he had appealed to all governments and international organizations, then regardless of the result, his prestige and influence in the world would have grown significantly. But the patriarch was silent. And everybody knew that the reason for this silence was a publication in the pro-government edition “Gerçek Hayat”, in which Patriarch Bartholomew was accused of participating in the 2016 attempted coup d’état and thus transparently hinted that if he dared to go against the decisions of the Turkish authorities, he might end up behind bars. Everyone saw the mechanism of ruling the "Ecumenical" Patriarch in action.

After this, it is difficult to imagine that the process of approval of the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Orthodox World will continue. Indirectly it will also affect the recognition by the Local Churches of the so-called Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which, incidentally, also did not dare to criticize R. Erdoğan. We recall that the OCU was recognized only by the Churches of Greece and Alexandria apart from the Phanar.

Perhaps, some time after the world has digested the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, the Turkish authorities will again raise the question that the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Turkey has practically no flock, and therefore it has nothing to do in Turkey. Perhaps, the project of the so-called Turkish Orthodox Church, created by the same Kemal Atatürk in 1922 to сare for the Turkish Christians, will be brought to light. It was originally a stillborn project, and it is likely to remain that way, but it may be used to get on the nerves of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

How should we, Orthodox Christians, take the Conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque?

And finally, the conclusion that we, Orthodox Christians, can draw from all this. Yes, we can protest, we can say that this is a blow to Christian civilization, that Hagia Sophia is one of the main shrines, etc. But we can think about this: but can’t God show to us that such grand temples as Hagia Sophia, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow and others are not necessary for human salvation?

Indeed, if you think about it: the apostles did not build a Christian civilization, they brought people the Gospel about the Saviour, that everyone can inherit this salvation. Grand Christian churches are called to testify to the power of Christianity. But what is the power of Christianity? Is it not keeping God’s commandments?

Grand Christian churches are called to testify to the power of Christianity. But what is the power of Christianity? Is it not keeping God’s commandments?

"If you love me, keep my commandments" (John 14:15), said Christ. What is the purpose of the Christian life? Is it not the attaining of the Holy Spirit, as St. Seraphim of Sarov said? Magnificent cathedrals were built by emperors and kings to perpetuate the glory of the state and them personally. But the glory of God is not in temples, but in people faithful to God. An interesting fact: when the late President of Russia Boris Yeltsin in the early 90's also proposed the late Patriarch Alexy II to build the majestic Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the Patriarch said that it would be better to build a church in every Russian village on this money. But how could it satisfy those in power? It's a bit petty for kings.

Grand temples did not guarantee that the people who built them will not become an apostate nation. "...My house shall be called a house of prayer; but you are making it a den of robbers" (Matthew 21, 13), said the Lord about the Jerusalem temple. And as for where to worship God, He replied: "... the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks" (John 4, 23).

You shouldn’t think that all the above is a statement of the non-necessity of churches and cathedrals. Both churches and cathedrals are necessary, but they are originated from other temples, which the Holy Apostle Paul said about: “Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

We cannot make Hagia Sophia a Christian church again, but each of us can, with the help of God, make themselves a temple of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, we all are called for this and will answer to God at the Last Judgment whether we did something for this or not.

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How do you assess the Phanar's statements about possible union with Catholics?
negatively, association with heretics is impossible
why not, we used to be one Church
this is the case of Phanar and the RCC, we have nothing to do with it
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