In 1453, Sultan Mehmet II (1432-1481) captured Constantinople, capital and largest metropolis of the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire. After the final East-West division in 395 and the fall of Rome in 476, it continued to live a separate existence until it fell into the claws of Islam.
Located on both sides of the narrow strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, in 2019 it accounted for 16 of Turkey’s 82 million people. Finally renamed Istanbul in 1930 under Field Marshal Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), father of modern Turkey, it’s the country’s most populous city as well as its cultural and financial hub.
The name change made by the young republic can be considered another measure to secularize a nation built on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, which disappeared for good in 1922. Atatürk opposed all religions and attributed the backwardness of Turkey to Islam, which he considered the “absurd theology of an immoral Bedouin” and a “rotting corpse which poisons our lives”.
In consequence, he turned the Orthodox Christian cathedral Hagia Sophia, a magnificent dome finished by Emperor Justinian I (c. 482 -565) in 537, later converted into a mosque with four minarets by the new masters, into a museum on February 1st, 1935. All Muslim worship there had stopped the year before, but a small prayer room was added in 1991.
It’s a major tourist attraction and last year received more than 3.7 million visitors. Located in the district of Fatih, in 1985 it was declared World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
This status might be endangered, as on July 10th, 2020, Turkey’s highest administrative court, the Council of State in Ankara, annulled Hagia Sophia’s nonreligious status by stating any use other than as a mosque was “legally not possible”.
The Paris-based UN institution expressed deep regrets about the decision of the Turkish authorities, taken without prior discussion, and indicated possible breaches of the rules derived from a 1972 convention.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had announced the ruling on the same day, stressed out that Turkey had merely exercised its sovereign right. The oppositional Republican People’s Party (CHP) that runs Istanbul described the move as political rather than religious, made to cover up other problems such growing economic difficulties.
The head of the Eastern Orthodox Church and current Archbishop of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew I, warned that the conversion of the building would “disappoint millions of Christians” and fracture two worlds.
Pope Francis said that his “thoughts go to Istanbul” and added “I think of Santa Sophia and I am very pained.” The World Council of Churches also cautioned against sowing division. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis considered it not a show of power, but evidence of weakness.
To further demonstrate his position of alleged strength Erdogan, himself a fervent Muslim, on July 24th joined worshippers at around midday for the first Friday prayer at the Hagia Sophia in 86 years, complete with clerics in white robes singing from the Koran.
The expected tens of thousands of men and women from all over the nation, which has registered around 225, 000 official coronavirus cases, were urged the Governor of the Province of Istanbul Ali Yerlikaya to bring surgical masks, patience and understanding to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
At the end, only about 1,000 people were allowed in after strict security checks. Although dozens broke through a police checkpoint and a group of men waved Turkish flags with ostentation and chanted “Allahu Akbar”, no grave incidents were reported.
Christian relics, like the mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Jesus from the 9th century, and ancient frescoes were covered up with white drapes or panels of Arabic religious calligraphy or simply obscured by lighting.
Erdogan’s predecessors all helped to preserve Western previous history, but he seems to convey the message that a majority of Turks don’t want to be secular anymore. The European Union should listen at last and immediately terminate any membership negotiations, which were a silly idea from the beginning anyway.
Notwithstanding that the Hagia Sophia stands on the west bank of the Bosporus, the strait nowadays clearly marks the border between Europe and Asia. The new sultan reminded everybody again that the once largest temple of Christian worship was lost more than five centuries ago.
Unfortunately, considering the current sad state of Europe, including its unwillingness and inability to defend what makes it truly unique and its suicidal Islam appeasement, it will be only a matter of time until other comparable sites will belong to the followers of Mohammed-once and forever.