Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is famous for saying, âIf we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.â Last year, he lost the cityâs municipal elections. Today, he is trying to reverse his sliding popularity by backing a religious fundamentalism that threatens Turkeyâs minorities, the countryâs secular character and Istanbulâs historic role as a tolerant metropolis where Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths coexisted for centuries.
On Friday, Erdoganâs shortsighted, cynical campaign struck at the very heart of world culture and Istanbulâs essential character. At his instigation, Turkeyâs highest administrative court issued a scandalously dangerous and bigoted decision: Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO world heritage site in Istanbul and a global symbol of world history and multicultural representation, should convert from a museum back to a mosque.
By serving as a museum, Hagia Sophia, a vast, 1,500-year-old structure that previously served as a church and then a mosque, represented the essence of Istanbul, a place where world-changing empires and religions conflicted and intersected but whose monuments and artifacts can be enjoyed by all. Fridayâs ruling marks a symbolic end to this legacy of tolerance.
Hagia Sophiaâs history contains the cityâs history. It is a Byzantine church that has dominated the skyline of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, for the cityâs entire history. When the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453, it became a mosque. In 1935, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, made it a museum, and Hagia Sophia was opened to all as a cultural and scientific site. It became a tremendous tourist attraction. Visitors marvel at not only its structure but also the layers of history it embodies.
Constantinople was founded in 330 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine I. He selected an amazing site overlooking the Bosporus with strategic control of the Black Sea. In his âNewâ Rome, he built an imperial capital that outstripped âOldâ Rome.
His son constructed the first church dedicated to âHagia Sophia,â Holy Wisdom. It served as the cathedral, where the patriarch conducted services attended by the emperor and empress as well as the local population.
As the city expanded, so did the church. In 537, Emperor Justinian, whose rule stretched from Italy to Sinai, dedicated the present structure as an expression of might and piety. It has an enormous dome, 102 feet in diameter, at a height of 184 feet. For nearly 1,000 years, it was the highest and largest in the world.
Decorated in contrasting colored marbles brought from all parts of the Mediterranean, the entire interior surface of Hagia Sophia glowed with golden and silver mosaics that reflected the light flooding in through its many windows.
Justinianâs original church had one internal decoration: a monumental, glittering cross in the dome, now removed. In the late ninth century, figural mosaics were added: the Virgin and Child in the main apse, with the archangels Michael and Gabriel on either side. Later rulers, including the Empress Zoe, commemorated themselves with beautiful gold mosaic portraits and Christian icons.
The great church established the standard. When the Arabs broke out of the deserts to proclaim the faith of Islam, they modeled their first mosques on the Christian domes pioneered by the Byzantines. So when the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II breached the triple walls and rode into Constantinople in May 1453, he could order the symbol of the city, Hagia Sophia, to be transformed into a mosque rather than destroying it.
Under Islamic law, the figural mosaics were either removed or plastered over, a huge loss and a warning of what might happen again. Indeed, while Turkish officials on Friday promised the mosaics wonât be removed, on Monday they announced that they will be covered by curtains or lasers during Muslim prayers.
To turn the unrivaled building back into a place of worship threatens open access to a magnificent structure and the buildingâs invaluable mosaic decorations. By restricting access to Istanbulâs greatest historical legacy, Erdogan assaults the cosmopolitan traditions that make the city and Turkey itself a crossroads for the world. It is an act of cultural cleansing.
This is a decision of a beleaguered autocrat â the most dangerous â motivated by a desire to punish Istanbulâs inhabitants, who voted decisively against him, and by a desire to consolidate his position by stirring sectarian animosity between his pious followers and those attached to secular traditions.
Hagia Sophia belongs to the world. Its fate is not just a matter, as Erdogan defensively insists, of Turkish sovereignty.
Judith Herrin is emeritus professor at Kingâs College London and the author of âRavenna, Capital of Empire, Crucible of Europe,â to be published in August.