Declared a mosque in principle, Hagia Sophia is now a mosque in practice.
Following his decree earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan’s joined a coronavirus-limited 500 worshipers to perform Friday prayers in the sixth-century Byzantine basilica, underneath the covered frescoes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Hundreds more gathered outside.
International condemnation resounded after the Turkish Council of State ruled to revert the UNESCO World Heritage Site back to its Islamic status. Conquered in 1453 by Ottoman sultan Mehmed II, the massive church was turned into a museum by the founder of the modern Turkish republic, Kamal Ataturk, in 1934.
Underreported in much of the criticism was a wider complaint.
“The action of the Turkish government evokes heavy memories on the desecration and destruction of holy sites of the Armenian people and other Christian nations by the Ottoman government for centuries,” said Garegin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians.
There are an estimated 11 million Armenians worldwide, including 3 million in their modern nation-state.
Representing the diaspora from the Holy See of Cilicia, in Lebanon, Catholicos Aram I went into more detail.
“Soon after the Armenian Genocide, Turkey confiscated thousands of Armenian churches and transformed them into bars, coffee shops, and public parks,” he said, “ignoring the reactions and appeals of the international community.”
As Erdoğan is doing again now—and not just to the Hagia Sophia.
Turkey has assured the frescoes will be uncovered for all visitors (3.7 million last year) outside of prayer times—and now without a museum entry fee. More than 400 other churches continue to serve the 1 percent of Turks that are Christians.
But Erdoğan’s remarks in Turkish revealed a wider agenda.
“The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the sound of Muslims' footsteps all around the world,” he said, “… a salute to all those symbolic cities of civilization from Bukhara to Andalusia.”
The geography stretches from Central Asia to Spain, casting Erdoğan in the shadow of the caliphs. And the date of first prayers, June 24, corresponds to the signing of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that established the Republic of Turkey—ending the Ottoman Empire and 1,300 years of the Islamic caliphate.
Erdoğan—who as a boy dreamed of restoring the Hagia Sophia as a mosque—has hinted the treaty now constricts Turkish sovereignty. And while there is no suggestion Turkey will undo its provisions to recognize its Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish communities—with constitutional guarantees for freedom of religion—renewing Islamic prayers represents a long history of disregard toward their Christian cultural heritage.
“I’m not surprised by the declaration of Erdoğan, it was very much in line with historic Turkish policy,” said Arda Ekmekji, a Sorbonne-educated archaeologist and dean of arts and sciences at Lebanon’s Armenian evangelical Haigazian University.
“Ataturk was the only exception to extremist Turks camouflaged as Europeans.”
Ekmekji, author of Towards Golgotha, a translation of her grandfather’s journey from Izmir to Jerusalem fleeing genocide, highlighted the 1913-14 Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate census in Turkey.
At that time, 1.9 million Armenians lived in 2,925 villages, hosting 2,538 churches, 451 monasteries, and 1,996 schools.
Following the genocide, she said, their homes were tallied and assigned by number to relocated Balkan Muslims. Laws were passed to transfer ownership of “abandoned” properties.
And while some religious buildings were able to be kept by church-based foundations, the law required a set number of local stakeholders. As the population dwindled, these also passed to the state.
In 2005, the Turkish government prevented research into original property deeds.
“The Ottoman records … must be sealed and not available to the public, as they have the potential to be exploited by alleged genocide claims and property claims against the State Charitable Foundation assets,” read the order.
“Opening them to general public use is against state interests.”
Today, Turkey hosts only 75,000 ethnic Armenian citizens, with less than 15 active churches. Whereas most of eastern Turkey used to be known as Western Armenia, the vast majority now live in Istanbul.
In 1974, UNESCO documented 913 Armenian heritage buildings declared empty, 464 vanished completely, 252 in ruins, and 197 in need of restoration.
One such basilica could fit inside the Hagia Sophia. The 7th century Cathedral of Mren, located near Kars on the Armenian border, like others, “could crumble to the ground any day now,” said Christina Maranci, professor of Armenian Art and Architecture at Tufts University.
She believes Turkish policy toward Armenian heritage is often one of “slow bureaucracy and purposeful neglect.”
The former is to blame, she says, for the three years she spent obtaining permission to do 3-D laser scanning of Mren. This imaging technique is often the first step in a restoration process. But it can also be the final, lasting memory, should the structures collapse.
The latter is seen through a quote given by a frustrated Turkish Minister of Culture.
“What we are up against is an undeclared policy by certain narrow-minded individuals within the state, of discrimination against Armenian monuments,” said Husseyin Celik, in 2002.
“The fear of these policymakers is that if Christian sites are restored, this will prove that Armenians once lived here and revive Armenian claims on our land.”
But there is more than just neglect and bureaucracy; there is also appropriation. While Mren has been left alone to decay, Maranci recalled early-career visits to the 10th century Cathedral of the Holy Apostles in Kars, which in 1993 was turned into a mosque.
Celik belongs to the ruling AKP party in Turkey, which during Erdoğan’s early years as prime minister (from 2003–2014) liberalized religious space for both Muslims and Christians. While a 1935 statute states that no new religious foundations may be established, during this time many Protestant churches were able to register as “cultural foundations.”
While continuing to refuse the word “genocide,” Erdoğan reached out to Armenians to console over the historic “deportations.” In 2011, a Restitution Decree provided a legal channel for compensation or property retrieval by dispossessed communities. And in 2018, the Syriac Orthodox Church received back 50 properties, including its oldest surviving monastery.
But progress has been slow.
In the same Tur Abdin area on the southeastern border with Syria, the Federation of Syriac Associations said 2,500 churches and 300 monasteries remain. Meanwhile, a 2014 decision to restore 11 properties to the Greek Orthodox Church has not yet been implemented.
Maranci, herself a granddaughter of a genocide survivor, lauded the efforts of many Turks to address the historical injustice. Chief among them is Osman Kavala, who was instrumental in helping secure funding and permission for her work on the Cathedral of Mren.
Kavala is celebrated worldwide for the work of his Anadolu Kültür (Anatolian Culture) foundation, in restoring the ruins of Ani on the Armenian border. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ani was once known as the City of 1,001 Churches.
He is now in prison, on what Maranci believes are trumped-up charges of trying to overthrow the regime.
“Many Turks want to preserve the monuments,” she said, “but maybe don’t feel comfortable saying so in the current climate.”
But for Elizabeth Prodmorou, former vice chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, cultural heritage is akin to human security. It enables minority populations to create community, as well as preserve their history through periods when they may have lacked official protection.
“Hagia Sophia raises the global profile of the cultural heritage policy in Turkey,” she said, “that has been erasure and destruction at worst, or else appropriation.”
Within her role as director of the Initiative on Religion, Law, and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Prodmorou highlighted Turkey’s recent efforts to expand this policy even further.
Last year the government requested an agreement with the United States to regulate the trade of Turkish artifacts. Under the auspices of the US Cultural Property Implementation Act, which intends to curb illegal looting of artifacts, Ankara claimed provenance over the entire Turkish cultural heritage, stretching from the prehistoric period to 1923.
The wide timeframe defines Turkish control over all history within its modern borders, inclusive of civilizations earlier than the state and perhaps of an Ottoman ethos laying claim to its empire.
These factors, along with the modern republic’s failure to live up to its UNESCO obligations, have led the US Association of Art Museum Directors to petition the State Department to deny Turkey’s request.
“The greatest threat to Turkey’s rich cultural heritage isn’t looting from nonstate actors,” Prodmorou said, “but from the Turkish state itself and its openly declared neo-Ottoman revisionist project.”
And as with the Hagia Sophia, this project has taken a turn away from conciliation.
In 2011, Erdoğan ordered the removal of a 100-foot sculpture in Kars, depicting a Turk and an Armenian shaking hands. He pledged the full support of the Turkish army to Azerbaijan, currently involved in border skirmishes with Armenia.
And since the release from prison of American pastor Andrew Brunson following the advocacy of President Trump, Erdoğan continues a policy of quietly denying residency permits to longstanding foreign leaders of the Protestant community, while Turkish law denies believers the right to train their own pastors.
In its turn to religious nationalism, Turkey may be pursuing a restoration of its worldwide Islamic leadership. Alternately, Erdoğan may simply be appealing to his electoral base.
But overlooked in much of the Hagia Sophia controversy is the damage conversion may do to the 1,500-year-old structure itself. Icon-covering curtains may have to be drilled into the walls. And a prayer carpet increases a destructive humidity.
“Turkey is putting aside the health of the monuments for other political issues, and in the meanwhile, they are falling down,” said Maranci.
“Once we’ve lost them, they are never coming back.”