The reversion of the AKP and the legends of Hagia Sophia

Strictly speaking, Turkey could indeed do whatever it wishes with the Hagia Sophia. Yet calling the conversion a “reversion” is revolting. The conversion indeed points to a reversion, not of the Hagia Sophia, though, but of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of President Erdoğan.

Baki Tezcan

President Erdoğan’s decision to convert the Hagia Sophia Museum to a mosque offers an opportunity for criticism at many levels. First, it lays bare the double standards of some contemporary Muslim thinkers in addressing (or failing to) this move. Second, the conversion runs the risk of setting a terrible international precedent, an irresponsible action with broader ramifications that have hardly been addressed. The move also reflects the effective erasure of Istanbul’s pre-1453 history. Simultaneously, the move has also highlighted the absence of any meaningful political opposition—with the notable and significant exception of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—to Erdoğan’s cultural agenda around freighted symbols of an Islamic national legacy. Perhaps most critically, the conversion is a concrete manifestation of the reversion of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to its origins in the National Vision (Milli Görüş) Movement. In this essay, I will develop each of these criticisms of the conversion decision inviting readers to join me in revisiting the second half of the fifteenth century to consider a different moment when some Ottoman subjects managed to find creative ways to give voice to their opposition to a conqueror’s imperialist projects. Inspired by the ingenuity of opponents to the imperialist policies of Mehmed II in the fifteenth century who found ways to emphasize the important difference between religious values and their use for political purposes, I will suggest a possible alternate path for critics of Erdoğan’s move. This alternate vision would provide a corrective to the many criticisms I highlight on the current conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Specifically, revisiting Hagia Sophia’s status could be an opportunity to imagine a different vision of Islam, set an exemplary international precedent for the management of complex cultural heritage sites, recognize the pre-1453 history of Istanbul, and perhaps even bring Turkish opposition parties together in an effort to remind the AKP of the values it purported to embrace in the 2000s.  

As Mücahit Bilici* underlined in Duvar on July 12, there are many contemporary Muslim thinkers who would argue that jihad is mainly a spiritual endeavor. If we were to ask them whether a place of worship should be forcefully converted to a mosque today, they would answer negatively. Yet if we were to ask them about the recent conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque, many of them would probably legitimize it by referring to the right of the sword that was justified by the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. And they would have a point as the conversion of places of worship for the use of the conquerors’ religious services was a fairly common phenomenon in the pre-modern world – long before the Ottomans, the Crusaders, who invaded the city in 1204, had sacked the Hagia Sophia and converted it from an Orthodox to a Catholic church during the Latin Empire (1204-61).

Yet the Hagia Sophia was converted to a museum in 1934 by the government of the Republic of Turkey. Since that time international law has evolved in new directions effectively calling into question the right of conquest – albeit with some significant examples of violations that go unpunished like Israel’s territorial expansion now verging on annexation. In effect, Turkey is asserting its ancient right of conquest over a cultural institution in the twenty-first century – a problematic move, to say the least. Imagine for a moment what would happen if Israeli authorities were to decide that they would like to rebuild the Second Temple on the Temple Mount which is under their effective military control even though it houses holy sites for Muslims.   

Turkish authorities are conveniently avoiding the international dimensions of the question and treating the issue as a purely internal administrative matter subject to Turkish sovereignty. Both President Erdoğan and Ali Erbaş, the President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), referred to the conversion of the Hagia Sophia Museum to a mosque as a “reversion to its origin (aslına rücu).” Their approach treats the more-than-900-year-long history of the Hagia Sophia between 537 and 1453 as practically irrelevant. For them, what matters is the Kemalist regime’s decision, first, to close the Hagia Sophia as a mosque and, then, to convert it to a museum. It is a purely internal political issue, an opportunity to reverse the perceived Kemalist betrayal of Ottoman cultural legacy.

Strictly speaking, Turkey could indeed do whatever it wishes with the Hagia Sophia. Yet calling the conversion a “reversion” is revolting. The conversion indeed points to a reversion, not of the Hagia Sophia, though, but of the AKP. The AKP was, to a large extent, the child of the National Vision Movement of Necmettin Erbakan (d. 2011), who declared his Muslim nationalist vision with a manifesto in 1969 and founded the National Salvation Party, which went through several incarnations, such as the Welfare Party, Virtue Party, and Felicity Party, as a result of military coups and Constitutional Court decisions that kept closing these parties for decades – a long period during which Turkey’s democracy suffered deeply.

The AKP was established in 2001 by a reformist faction of the movement, inviting other conservative politicians from the center-right—many of whom belonged to the economically liberal and culturally conservative tradition of the Democratic Party (DP) and the Justice Party (AP)—to join their party. The AKP first came to power in 2002 and during the 2000s, the party followed a quite different line than that of Erbakan’s movement by leading Turkey closer to the European Union than it had ever been. AKP politicians were often referred to as Muslim democrats then, both at home and abroad. Those days are long gone as the AKP evolved from a party of conservative democrats to one of authoritarian Muslim nationalists who are in coalition with the Turkish nationalists of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—Turkey’s ultra-nationalist, far-right party.

As Levent Gültekin reminds us in Diken, the late Erbakan would close his speeches by swearing to reopen the Hagia Sophia as a mosque and demanding from his audience to repeat his oath. With the decision to convert the Hagia Sophia museum to a mosque, the AKP has realized the dream of generations of National Vision followers and further consolidated its already close alliance with the MHP. The MHP, for its part, sees the conversion decision not as revenge against the Kemalists but rather against the West – a symbolic repudiation of ties to Europe though the West had no role in the Kemalists’ decision back in the 1930s. On the contrary, the decision was made by the same leadership that saved Istanbul from the military occupation of the western Allied Powers. Thus, even if one were to revive outdated international law and talk about a right of the sword in the case of the Hagia Sophia, that symbolic sword had actually passed from Mehmed VI, the last Ottoman sultan who acquiesced in the occupation of his capital in the aftermath of the World War I, to Mustafa Kemal, who was the leader of the national resistance that defeated the Allied Powers and later signed the decision to transform the Hagia Sophia into a museum.  

One might say that there is nothing surprising in this as the writing has been on the wall for the Hagia Sophia for a while now. After all, Erdoğan campaigned on the promise to convert the museum to a mosque during last year’s local elections. Yet it remained surprising that the only strong reaction to the decision came from the HDP, the only reliably pluralist left political formation in the country’s political spectrum. Muharrem İnce—who ran as the presidential candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) in 2018 against Erdoğan—went so far as to declare that he would attend the first prayer at the Hagia Sophia if he received an invitation.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the first prayer at the Hagia Sophia is scheduled for Friday, July 24, the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne. That treaty, concluded in the aftermath of World War I and signed in 1923, represented the first international recognition of the modern Republic of Turkey and is widely regarded as a symbol of Kemalism by Islamist political movements in Turkey. By holding the first prayer on that anniversary, President Erdoğan will be killing two birds with one stone. All that the principal opposition party, the CHP, founded by Mustafa Kemal in 1923, could muster in response to Erdoğan’s highly symbolic choice is İnce’s call for an invitation to join the re-opening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Turkish journalist Kemal Göktaş has aptly noted that the symbolism of the event, and the response it occasioned from the CHP, turns the occasion into a funeral prayer for Turkish secularism.

Most opposition parties in Turkey are apparently too anxious to challenge President Erdoğan when it comes to symbols of bygone Islamic victories. They seem to believe that making a declaration against this cheap, populist, and tactless move by the President would become an electoral liability. I am not a political scientist with opinion poll data at hand to interpret whether or not this calculation is correct. But it bears noting that the historiography on the Hagia Sophia and the conquest of Constantinople suggests that some Turkish-speaking Muslims in the second half of the fifteenth century were more critical of the Ottoman imperial project of Mehmed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, than contemporary opposition politicians are of the populist authoritarianism of President Erdoğan. This is especially striking since Erdoğan’s record reflects neither a conquest like Mehmed II’s legacy nor a re-conquest like that achieved by Mustafa Kemal but instead a long list of corruption allegations and severe economic mismanagement.

The most detailed study of Turkish legends about Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia remains to be La fondation de Constantinople et de Sainte-Sophie dans les tradition turques: légendes d’Empire (1990) by Stefanos Yerasimos (d. 2005), an Istanbulite who mostly published in French and taught in Paris. In his very detailed study, which is built upon his impressive mastery of both Greek and Turkish primary sources, the late Yerasimos shows that Mehmed II’s imperial project was critiqued in Ottoman historiography in the second half of the fifteenth century through the circulation of legends that offered a very negative spin to the idea of an empire centered in Constantinople.

One of the first things Mehmed II did after the conquest of Constantinople was the execution of his grand vizier who represented provincial elites and initially opposed the idea of besieging the Byzantine capital. He relied increasingly more on his royal slaves, mostly Christian-born Ottoman subjects who were seized as children, converted to Islam, and trained in the royal palace, thus replacing the provincial elite with his own men. He also appropriated the estates of provincial elite families that were held in legally-established family trusts. 

Most of the critical legends were probably produced by authors representing the interests of the provincial elites who stood to lose from Mehmed II’s efforts to centralize his rule. Because Mehmed II’s reforms created a new ruling class with absolute loyalty to him, the old provincial elites had reason to be concerned. The early legends of Constantinople and Hagia Sophia, reflecting their anxieties, were creative fictions that associated the city and the church with moral corruption and religious infidelity. According to these legends, which invented historical characters in the pre-Byzantine past who had never existed, the city was doomed to fail, as had been proven several times before, because God wanted to punish its rulers who suffered from pride and vanity. Mehmed II’s policy of populating the city through compulsory immigration from different parts of the empire was also the target of criticism. The legends projected such demographic engineering policies into a distant past and obliquely discussed Mehmed II’s policies as if they took place in pre-Ottoman times.

There is also a partially apocalyptic text, which, according to Yerasimos, contributed greatly to the formation of Turkish legends critical of the Ottoman imperial project in the second half of the fifteenth century: the Hidden Pearl (Dürr-i meknun). In it the author condemns the corruption, greed, and hypocrisy of his time and foretells that Muslims will lose Constantinople, conquer it again, lose it again, and, finally, conquer it for good in the end times. Clearly, Muslim authors had no qualms about accepting that Muslim power corrupts just as much as any other and wishing that such corruption would face divine punishment. Incidentally, similar sentiments are shared today by many Turks who also have little choice but to express themselves obliquely on social media for fear of persecution. Not unlike the authors of the legends who framed their criticisms through myth to avoid the ire of the ruler, latterday commenters must offer their critiques always bearing in mind that President Erdoğan takes offense rather quickly and pursues his critics in court. To date, over 100,000 citizens have been investigated for the crime of “insulting the president,” and prosecutions have been initiated in more than 30,000 cases, some of them involving children. 

Yerasimos also underlines the continuity of the fundamental tension between religion and empire in the Byzantine and Ottoman cases. Jesus’ fellowship of believers was as different from the hierarchy of the church that served the political authority of the Roman emperor as was the companionship of Muhammad from the hierarchy of scholar-bureaucrats who interpreted Islam with a view to serving the political authority of the Ottoman emperor. 

Many Turkish Muslims today are also aware of the ways in which the Directorate of Religious Affairs—which has a larger annual budgetary allocation than eight of the sixteen ministries in Erdoğan’s cabinet even though it does not have the status of a ministry—is employed to consolidate the political hegemony of the AKP in many spheres of life. These contemporary subjects of Erdoğan’s rule equally know the difference between the humility of Muhammad and his companions, on the one hand, and the vanity displayed in the luxury cars at the disposal of the President of the Directorate of Religious Affairs and the palace in which President Erdoğan resides.

Against this backdrop, it is hard to read opposition leaders’ hesitation in critiquing the President on issues that touch on religious sensibilities as anything other than cowardly and wrongheaded. As is often the case, the HDP sets this cowardice in relief by representing the conscience of Turkey through its principled stance. If the CHP trusted its constituents a little more with being able to tell the difference between religious commitments to do good and political moves to bolster power, the opposition parties could use the museum conversion as an excellent opportunity to build a strong alliance around universal values. And they do not even have to oppose the idea of using the former museum as a mosque. As is widely known, a part of the Hagia Sophia has been used as a mosque since 1991, and since 2016, a full-time imam has been serving this mosque. 

Such an alliance of opposition parties could resist the conversion decision altogether or offer an alternative. What matters most is for them to talk with each other, find ways of acting together without excluding the HDP, and not be bullied into acquiescence with each invocation of allegedly Islamic references. Because the AKP’s likely next controversial move will be the withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention, also knowns as the European Council Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, it is more important than ever for the Turkish opposition to develop a coordinated strategy to stand and act together.  

An alternative that could transform the current moment into an opportunity for Turkey was suggested by Sahak Maşalyan, the Patriarch of the Armenian Church of Turkey. The Patriarch opined more than a month ago that the Hagia Sophia could be opened to all religions. Why not keep it as a museum for part of the week, and open it for an Alevi semah ritual Thursday nights, for Sunni prayers on Fridays, for the Jewish community on Saturdays, and for Christian congregations on Sundays? Such a transformation would keep the Hagia Sophia alive and better serve its long-term preservation as a cultural heritage site, offer an alternative to Islamist political hegemony, recognize Turkey’s diversity, and set an exemplary international precedent for other similar sites globally. It would also remind us all that the fundamental pillar of all religions, including Islam, is good morals which demand sensitivity toward others’ beliefs, rather than ignoring them as if they do not exist. In the hope that our children may learn to treat others as they would like to be treated, this proposal offers a just path forward for opposition parties to honor the many communities in Turkey in a way that neither repudiates the Muslim right of worship nor effaces the pluralist past and present of the country.


*Mücahit Bilici is mistaken when he calls the era of turning churches into mosques the “age of Bedouinism and violence,” as neither the Crusaders, nor the Ottomans were Bedouins. Moreover, urban Arab leaders of the early caliphate, who were either Meccans or descendants of Meccans and lived in Arab or Arabized cities, were relatively more sensitive than the Ottomans to local religious sensibilities – the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem remains as a church to this day even though it was conquered in 638 by an army that might have included many Bedouins in its ranks. Since the city surrendered, the inhabitants received assurances about their religious freedom. Still, according to Christian Arab tradition, Caliph Umar refused to pray at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre lest later Muslims would request the church to be converted to a mosque. In comparison, with the sole exception of the Church of Panagia Mouchliotissa in Fener, every Byzantine church in Constantinople was eventually converted to a mosque.

This article was originally published on Jadaliya on July 20, 2020.


Baki Tezcan is a professor of history at University of California Davis. He teaches courses on Islam, the Qur’an, Islamic law, politics and religion, pilgrimage and Middle Eastern history. His research mainly focus on the transformation of Islam in the Ottoman public sphere from the late thirteenth to the early twentieth century, Ottoman political history in the 16th–18th centuries, pre-modern ethnic and racial identities in the Islamic world.