Seek­ing to re­claim Ha­gia Sophia

Three groups in Turkey march to call for turn­ing mu­seum back into a mosque.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Umar Fa­rooq Fa­rooq is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent.

IS­TAN­BUL, Turkey — As the time for af­ter­noon prayers ap­proaches, On­der Soy puts on a white robe and cap and pow­ers on the mi­cro­phone in a small 19th cen­tury room ad­join­ing the Ha­gia Sophia.

Soon, Soy’s melodic call to prayer rings out over a square filled with tourists hur­ry­ing to visit some of Turkey’s most fa­mous his­tor­i­cal sights be­fore they close for the day.

The room Soy is in — built as a rest­ing place for the sul­tan and now of­fi­cially called the Ha­gia Sophia mosque — fills up with about 40 wor­shipers, drawn not by the mod­estly dec­o­rated space, but by the an­cient build­ing it shares a wall with.

Built by the Byzan­tine Em­peror Jus­tinian I in AD 537, the Ha­gia Sophia was a Greek Ortho­dox basil­ica and one of the most im­por­tant churches in all of Chris­ten­dom. It be­came a mosque in 1453 af­ter the Ot­toman Em­pire de­feated the Byzan­tines and took over Con­stantino­ple.

With the birth of a sec­u­lar Turk­ish Repub­lic, the Ha­gia Sophia be­came a mu­seum in 1935, meant to high­light the shared legacy of the space for the world’s two largest re­li­gions. But eight decades later, the fate of this build­ing still tugs at the hearts of Mus­lims and Chris­tians alike.

In Oc­to­ber, Turkey’s Direc­torate of Re­li­gious Af­fairs ap­pointed Soy as the full­time imam for the room ad­join­ing the Ha­gia Sophia, a space that opened in 1992 but was pre­vi­ously meant for use only by work­ers in the area.

Five times a day now, Soy’s voice rings out not just as a call to daily prayer, but also as an audi­ble re­minder for many Mus­lims in Turkey that their long-held dream of wor­ship­ing in­side the Ha­gia Sophia may be­come a re­al­ity.

This month, three sep­a­rate groups led marches to the mu­seum call­ing for its open­ing as a mosque. One group be­gan a cam­paign ask­ing peo­ple to re­move their shoes be­fore they en­ter the build­ing, just as they would when en­ter­ing a mosque.

“I have never en­tered the Ha­gia Sophia and I never will un­til it is re­opened as a mosque,” said Em­rul­lah Ce­lik, 29, an ac­tivist who has helped lead a small but inf lu­en­tial grass-roots cam­paign to have the build­ing con­verted to a mosque. “We want to en­ter with a prayer rug, not with a ticket.”

“It’s not like the stones of the Ha­gia Sophia are holy, there is noth­ing in­side it that makes it spe­cial, but God told us it is im­por­tant,” said Salih Akyuz, the head of the youth branch of the Saadet Party, one of sev­eral Is­lamist groups that led a march to the Ha­gia Sophia on May 29, the 564th an­niver­sary of the Ot­toman con­quest of Con­stantino­ple. “We were taught by our prophet Muham­mad that Con­stantino­ple was an im­por­tant place, and this was the most im­por­tant place in the city, so it is dear to our hearts.”

Out­side the Ha­gia Sophia, two women walk past Soy and pur­chase tick­ets to en­ter the mu­seum. One places a shawl over her head and briefly kneels to make the sign of the cross, her eyes fixed on a glim­mer­ing 9th cen­tury mo­saic above the basil­ica’s Im­pe­rial Door.

Thou­sands of mar­ble squares, semi­precious stones, and cut glass in dozens of col­ors de­pict Christ seated on a throne, flanked by the Vir­gin Mary and the ar­changel Gabriel, with the Byzan­tine Em­peror Leo VI kneel­ing, cher­ish­ing the chance to kiss Christ’s feet.

For nearly a mil­len­nium, the Im­pe­rial Door — made of wood that some be­lieve comes from Noah’s ark — was opened only for em­per­ors.

Jus­tinian I re­port­edly hoped to outdo Solomon’s Tem­ple, and to many of those who vis­ited the Ha­gia Sophia over the cen­turies, he suc­ceeded.

A se­ries of semi­cir­cles draws the eye to the cen­ter of the space, a 108-foot wide dome set on 40 win­dows that seems to float about 200 feet in the air.

Three aisles run­ning east-west are sep­a­rated by rows of mas­sive Corinthian col­umns topped with leaves and scrolls so elab­o­rate it is dif­fi­cult to fathom they were

carved in stone.

The floor has been weath­ered so smooth by 14 cen­turies of vis­i­tors, in some places signs re­mind you it is slip­pery.

Nearly every Byzan­tine em­peror un­til 1453 was crowned in the Ha­gia Sophia.

In 1054, a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Latin Pope Leo IX marched up to the cen­tral al­tar and de­clared the pa­tri­arch of Con­stantino­ple ex­com­mu­ni­cated, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of the Great Schism that would sep­a­rate the Eastern Ortho­dox and Ro­man Catholic faiths.

The basil­ica’s most awein­spir­ing con­tents have been the nearly four acres of mo­saics that once cov­ered its walls, most of which were ob­scured dur­ing Ot­toman rule to ad­here to a strict Is­lamic ban on im­ages in­side mosques. But even in its ca­pac­ity as a mosque, vis­i­tors could of­ten peer up at gi­ant mo­saics of angels with their faces ob­scured, or make out Greek crosses in­side the painted de­signs en­cir­cling them meant to con­vert them into be­nign geo­met­ric pat­terns.

With the rise in pop­u­lar­ity in Turkey of Ot­toman­themed tele­vi­sion shows, and the pro­mo­tion of the na­tion’s im­pe­rial her­itage by the rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party, the marches and sim­i­lar ral­lies at the Ha­gia Sophia have be­come in­creas­ingly fre­quent sights.

At the May 29 march, a man in royal re­galia meant to mimic that of Ot­toman Sul­tan Mehmed II rode a white horse along the route used by the sul­tan’s sol­diers in 1453 as they breached the city walls and headed for the Ha­gia Sophia.

At a side door to the mu­seum to­day, a say­ing at­trib­uted to the prophet Muham­mad is found in in­tri­cate gold cal­lig­ra­phy: “You [my fol­low­ers] will con­quer Con­stantino­ple, and the leader who does so will be great, and his army will be great.”

Muham­mad’s im­me­di­ate suc­ces­sors tried un­suc­cess­fully to take the city, as did a long line of Ot­toman lead­ers be­fore Mehmed II, whose tomb, two miles away, is a pop­u­lar pil­grim­age point for the pi­ous.

Nearly 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple visit the Ha­gia Sophia an­nu­ally, mak­ing it the most pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion in Turkey. But not ev­ery­one in Turkey is ea­ger to see the trea­sures in­side.

A few hours be­fore dawn, Ce­lik and a few dozen young men and women gath­ered be­fore the mu­seum en­trance, and had a pic­nic break­fast, the last meal be­fore the start of a Ra­madan fast.

“If now is not the right time, when is?” Ce­lik asked.

While Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Erdogan has held off on an­nounc­ing any re­tool­ing of the Ha­gia Sophia, Is­lamists see hope­ful signs, like the open­ing of the full-time mosque in the small room ad­join­ing the build­ing.

As Ce­lik and the oth­ers gulped down glasses of wa­ter in prepa­ra­tion for the fast, a satel­lite van parked nearby car­ried a live tele­vi­sion feed from in­side the Ha­gia Sophia.

The show, broad­cast na­tion­ally since last year, fea­tures a soft-spo­ken host in­ter­view­ing a ro­tat­ing cast of aca­demics, his­to­ri­ans and re­li­gious schol­ars. The last half-hour fea­tures a recita­tion of the Ko­ran in­side the mu­seum, the only oc­ca­sion such a prac­tice has been al­lowed by author­i­ties.

Ce­lik helped spark the cur­rent round of in­ter­est around the Ha­gia Sophia. In May 2014, he and a hand­ful of ac­tivists or­ga­nized an early morn­ing march on the mu­seum that ended up draw­ing thou­sands.

“At the time, it was a hot topic, and me and a group of young ac­tivists were think­ing, how can we get peo­ple to be more in­ter­ested, to put more pres­sure on our lead­ers?” said Ce­lik.

Af­ter the march, the Greek gov­ern­ment, and the lead­er­ship of the Greek Ortho­dox Church con­demned the pro­posal. One Is­lamist group, the Ana­to­lia Youth Assn., col­lected more than 15 mil­lion sig­na­tures on a pe­ti­tion call­ing for the mosque to be re­opened.

A bill was tabled in par­lia­ment, only to be qui­etly with­drawn by the rul­ing party.

Then-Prime Min­is­ter Erdogan, who has built his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer on em­pow­er­ing con­ser­va­tive Mus­lims in Turkey, re­buffed Ce­lik and the other ac­tivists, say­ing they should first fill the nearby Blue Mosque with wor­shipers be­fore turn­ing to the Ha­gia Sophia.

On other oc­ca­sions, Erdogan has said he would like to see the Ha­gia Sophia even­tu­ally be­come a mosque, but the pres­i­dent’s pace — and real mo­ti­va­tions for such rhetoric — does not im­press Is­lamist ac­tivists such as Ce­lik.

“If the is­sue was about fill­ing mosques, why is Erdogan build­ing the Cam­lica mosque? How is he go­ing to fill that?” said Ce­lik, re­fer­ring to a mosque on a hill over­look­ing Is­tan­bul that will be the largest in the coun­try.

“It’s a po­lit­i­cal is­sue in Turkey, and the [rul­ing] party has taken some foot­steps so far to make it a mosque, but that has not been enough.”

If Mehmed II’s con­ver­sion of the church into a mosque was a turn­ing point, Ce­lik says Turkey is now ready for a new his­toric mo­ment.

“For us, 1453 was a sym­bol of Is­lam win­ning over Chris­tian­ity,” said Ce­lik. “Now, for those who want to keep the Ha­gia Sophia a mu­seum — I think a very small num­ber of peo­ple — it’s a sym­bol of sec­u­lar­ism win­ning over Is­lam. But Turkey has changed, and they are out of touch with it.”

Jerzy Ko­ci­atkiewicz

THE HA­GIA SOPHIA in Is­tan­bul was built as a Greek Ortho­dox basil­ica in the 6th cen­tury, be­came a mosque in 1453 and a mu­seum in 1935. Nearly 3.5 mil­lion peo­ple visit the Ha­gia Sophia an­nu­ally, mak­ing it the most pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion in Turkey.

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