Yet another political move the world did not need: the reversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque

Márton Gyöngyösi



Looking at the recent political events, you may feel that the cyclical nature of economic ups and downs may just as much be observed in politics as well. 

When leaders want to cooperate and listen to each other, it is usually followed by some improvement. Of course, such improvements typically require some compromise that everybody remembers for a while. 

However, when the memories of hard times fade and stability becomes the new norm, more and more people tend to start questioning the world order as they have already forgotten why certain gestures and compromises were made. Times like this bring the rise of politicians who want nothing more than to bask in their own glory, ignoring the needs of others. To gain popularity quickly, these politicians are happy to upset and uproot any norms, written and unwritten rules or social conventions around them. We Hungarians have an in-depth experience with this type of politician: we are treated to Viktor Orbán’s self-indulgence on a daily basis.

These leaders, who we can rightfully call Orbán’s friends as they clearly are, keep trying to increase their popularity by playing on the collective self-interest of certain groups, thus making the world a worse and worse place overall as each group wants to take just a tiny bit of revenge on the others; retaliate for just another historical injustice, at least in the symbolic space.

All these little revenges, all this symbolic poking and prodding, all this vigilantism altogether make up a chaotic and selfish world. Regardless how popular sabre-rattlers are, this “knives out” world won’t last forever. The only question is how long this political era of self-interest and historical grievances will last? Looking at the time when these types of leaders got into power in the first half of the last century, the prospects are not quite appealing…

The Hagia Sophia affair, which started out as a little act of revenge, a little symbolic poking, has grown into a worldwide diplomatic scandal. One of the most ancient and important Christian temples, Hagia Sophia was taken over by the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim world upon the fall of Constantinople. The conquerors never questioned the significance of the building. On the contrary, they converted the cathedral into a mosque and held it in reverence. They never denied its origins. On the contrary, they were proud to have conquered it. This has always been a thorn in the side of the Christian world.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the pro-west secular nationalist founder of modern Turkey was clearly aware of that, so he made the decision in 1930 that the building should not belong to one religion or the other. Instead, it should belong to the general public. 

Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum that kept the Ottoman additions but also put the magnificent Christian memories on display again. Hagia Sophia truly became the universal treasure of humanity.

If you have some insight into Turkish history, you know that even though Atatürk did save the country and implemented many major reforms, his reputation is still controversial in Turkish hearts. Officially, Turkey indeed respects him as the new founder of the country; his reforms are truly recognized but one hundred years were not enough for these reforms to find the way to every Turkish heart. Perhaps it’s not necessary, either. The ambitious plan to make Turkey an integral part of the western world that is dominated by a Christian ideology may perhaps have been contrary to the Turkish soul. And there is no problem with that at all. Each country and each nation is entitled to its own cultural identity, which includes religion as well. There is no problem about Turkey rediscovering its Muslim roots and own what it has always been characterized by.

The problem is that there was absolutely no need for converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in today’s world which is already marred by conflicts. No wonder the western world blew a fuse, since it means the reopening of a conflict that dates back to many centuries. 

It is a bad gesture to the western world. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has just sent the message that he can do whatever he wants – does it sound familiar?

This act may gain some more supporters for President Erdoğan but, in the long run, it will be a loss for us Christians, who are deprived of yet another common cultural treasure, and for Turkey as well. 

No country can set up enough billboards or blare a loud enough propaganda to cover up the economic decline and the increasingly fierce social conflicts forever. As far as its long-term prosperity is concerned, Turkey needs its cultural and religious heritage just as much as it needs partners, but President Erdoğan’s decision is frowned upon in Europe as well as in Russia. On the other hand, the unconditional friendship of such populist leaders as Viktor Orbán, who sometimes advertises himself as the anointed defender of Christianity but keeps disreputably silent in this matter because his private shady deals with some Turkish businessmen are more important – well, the friendship of such people can’t get you very far. We’ll see how far it gets President Erdoğan who affronted Christians for domestic political gains…

This is the English translation of a post published on the author’s Facebook page. The original text in Hungarian can be accessed here below: 

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