Hagia Sophia: The great amplifier

The political Islamist aspirations that Erdoğan supporters call “the cause” have been totally unleashed. The amplified noise of this cause no longer allows any voice of finesse to be heard, let alone be amplified, in the Hagia Sophia or elsewhere.

On November 4, 2016, something truly mesmerizing happened: sound traveled in time and space. The renowned choir Capella Romana gave a concert in a Stanford University concert hall with the title “Hagia Sophia Reimagined,” and the audience listened to the Byzantine chants as they were heard in the Hagia Sophia during the Middle Ages. The choir’s voice was filtered through an algorithm created by Stanford's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. The scientists went to the Hagia Sophia and recorded several sounds to understand how the spectacular acoustics of the building operate, and then applied the same acoustic process to the choir’s music. However, on the day of the concert, Istanbul, the city where the Hagia Sophia actually is, was so noisy with the sounds of jingoism that such a work of finesse went unheard. It was only a few months after the July 15 coup attempt, and amidst the noise, many were leaving the country silently. They were the ones who surrendered to the fact that only the voices of vulgarity and violence would reign in Turkey. On the night of the coup attempt, the call of the sela — a prayer usually practiced after death — from 90,000 mosques made it clear that the Turkey they knew would no longer be.

The Hagia Sophia was officially opened as a mosque on July 24, the day the Lausanne Treaty was signed in 1923. The treaty is considered to be the founding document of the Republic of Turkey in international political history. Therefore, for those who had long-lasting discomfort with laïcité, turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque on such an anniversary had strong symbolism. But just in case you missed this sophisticated symbolism, Erdoğan’s regime and its supporters rubbed it in your face anyway. The cries of “Allahu Akbar” in the supposedly secular parliament by government MPs and statements from Erdoğan supporters such as “the stone man is melting” — in reference to statues of Atatürk — make it clear that the founding of Erdoğan’s Turkey has been completed. 

Those who follow international politics and Turkey know that the Hagia Sophia is the biggest political distraction that Erdoğan has used so far. While everyone is busy with the museum or mosque dispute, a list of massive matters become invisible. Some of them are: natural gas and oil drilling in the South Mediterranean and the problems it creates with Greece, establishing a multiple bar system for lawyers that will ruin the already damaged justice system, many high-profile political prisoners being kept in prison against the law, and the massive economic crisis. So far, this cathedral-sized distraction seems to be working perfectly well for both international and domestic politics. But when, in the near future, the excitement and tension fail to sustain, Erdoğan will surely come up with another spectacular distraction. Those who follow his masterful distraction politics have already found such moves tedious. However, at the moment, his devotees are all busy witch-hunting those who try to express the fact that the sovereignty of a country cannot monopolize the shared inheritance of humanity. The regime's spin-doctors go as far as to say that this is a milestone for Al-Aqsa. The political Islamist aspirations that Erdoğan supporters call “the cause” have been totally unleashed. The amplified noise of this cause no longer allows any voice of finesse to be heard, let alone be amplified, in the Hagia Sophia or elsewhere.

Around the time the “Hagia Sophia Reimagined” concert happened at Stanford, I left my country. Since then I have been struggling with the word “exile.” It is a heavy word that is stuck to my name that people use to describe my current situation. I try to explain that the country of a writer is language, and that when her words are suppressed by the noise of vulgarity, she has a right to choose the place where finesse is still present. Any land where words about the fragility of beauty are still allowed to be amplified is and can be a home for the storyteller. Shouting and then shouting more to be heard is a different language that I cannot speak. Unfortunately, this is the single language that is allowed in my country for the time being. 

Today, from afar, I watch the ardent cries of victory chanted by regime supporters. They do not hesitate to amplify their grudge when saying that “Istanbul is finally and completely conquered.” Their resentful eyes are constantly monitoring and hunting down any other voice that does not repeat the exact words they shout. They claim the sole monopoly over the mesmerizing echo of the Hagia Sophia, but the algorithm of resonance, that incredible arithmetic of sound, belongs only to time. Such a patient matter is time: it can wait long enough for those who do not know any other language than shouting to eventually lose their voices. But I know sound can travel in time, so I wait with my words.

This article was first published in Le Monde on July 18, 2020.

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