Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is famous for saying, “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.” Last year, he lost the city’s municipal elections. Today, he is trying to reverse his sliding popularity by backing a religious fundamentalism that threatens Turkey’s minorities, the country’s secular character and Istanbul’s historic role as a tolerant metropolis where Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths coexisted for centuries.
On Friday, Erdogan’s shortsighted, cynical campaign struck at the very heart of world culture and Istanbul’s essential character. At his instigation, Turkey’s 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.
Hagia Sophia’s history contains the city’s history. It is a Byzantine church that has dominated the skyline of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, for the city’s 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.