As a combination of power and grace, few buildings in the world can compare with Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. Vast in size, revolutionary in shape and construction, breathtaking in a million details, it’s been a summation of successful architecture since it was built in the year 537. And its greatness has survived almost 1500 years of repeated religious conflicts.
When Hagia Sophia was built, by the Emperor Justinian I, it was the Church of Hagia Sophia, the seat of the eastern branch of the Roman Catholic Church, which became the separate Eastern Orthodox Church. Aside from 57 years in the Thirteenth Century, when it was taken over by Roman Catholics, it remained the chief cathedral of Eastern Orthodoxy until 1453, when the city – then known as Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire and the Muslims turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque.
In 1935, as part of his campaign to modernize Turkey by reducing the power of Islam and erasing many of its Ottoman traditions, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk secularized the building, turning it from a symbol of religious conflict to one of Turkish national identity by turning it into a museum.
After 85 years as a public building and secular institution, on July 24, 2020, it was rededicated as the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, a successful summation of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s piety politics.
When Erdogan invokes religion it’s rarely about unification through moral exaltation. Usually for the Turkish leader belief is a blunt instrument to be used to divide his people into supporters and fragmented groups of opponents, whom Erdogan sees and treats as enemies.
Those are the Turks the president hopes never to see inside Turkey’s most famous, most historic building, and though there’s a veneer of religion pasted onto their exclusion, at its heart, their enforced absence from Hagia Sophia is all about politics.
Pinar Tremblay is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Turkey Pulse and a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is a columnist for Turkish news outlet T24. Her articles have appeared in Time, New America, Hurriyet Daily News, Today’s Zaman, Star and Salom.