“Either I will conquer you or you will conquer me”; this sentence, uttered by Fatih Sultan Mehmet, referred to Istanbul. This city has a subtle connection with the sacred Islamic cities of Mecca and Jerusalem; the qibla (direction of prayer) in Istanbul is towards both the Ka’ba and Al-Aqsa. For us Muslims, it is a beautiful blessing to face both the first qibla in Islam and the second of the Ka’ba while praying salah in this truly blessed city.
Istanbul is also remarkable for its layers of history and how visible they are. There are layers of different civilizations, from various religions across many eras. One does not only see the history but also feels it. One place to feel and see these layers of history is Ayasofya, also known as Hagia Sophia. Hagia/Aya means “holy” and Sophia/Sofya means “wisdom.” This amazing masterpiece has layers of history within itself. It was first built as a Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral in the year 537 CE. With the Fourth Crusades in 1204, it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire and reconverted as an Orthodox church with the return of the Byzantine Empire in 1261. With the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453, it was converted into a mosque and after the fall of the Ottomans, Ayafoya was secularized and served as a museum from 1934 on.
A week ago, Turkey announced that Ayasofya will be a mosque once again, welcoming Jumu’ah prayers at the complex on July 24, 2020. While the decision was welcomed and celebrated by Muslims in and outside of Turkey, there are those that interpreted the decision as being purely political and/or merely symbolic. I would like to explain that there is however more to the issue. Ayasofya has been a central issue on the minds and hearts of Turkish Muslims who have been eagerly waiting to pray inside the beautiful building as they had for centuries before the 1934 museum conversion. To understand the issue, one needs to understand the history of the Republic of Turkey.
The Republic was built on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and it saw success and survival in nationalism and secularism. This was translated into policies of oppression and political violence towards all people who did not fit in with the new secular Turkish identity being created. So, the new state did not only target those of minority ethnicity and religion, but also those of the majority who were religious and practicing Muslims.
‘Turkification’ policies were adopted as well as a ‘population swap’ with Greece in attempts to make Anatolia more Turkish. The minorities in Istanbul were exempt from the population swap; however, most of them left after the Istanbul pogrom in 1955. In 1925, a group of Kurdish Muslims rebelled against the state with the goal of re-establishing the Caliphate; thousands were killed, and thousands were forcibly removed from their homes and their lands. As part of the Turkification policies, the Kurdish language and anything relating to Kurdish culture were banned. In 1937, Alevis started a rebellion against the Turkish state, and again thousands were killed and forcibly moved.
Islam and Muslims in general were also targeted. After the official abolition of the caliphate in 1924, a ‘hat law’ was introduced that basically aimed to replace all Islamic head coverings, and in addition to having the alphabet changed from Arabic letters to Latin letters (which left anyone traditionally educated illiterate), all religious schools (madrasahs) and monasteries (tekkes/zawiyas) were closed. In 1941, the adhan was made Turkish and was recited in Turkish for almost 20 years. Unfortunately, the situation did not improve. The 1980s saw another wave of secularization policies; one such policy was the hijab ban in all public institutions, which included schools and universities, preventing hijabi women and girls from education and employment.
Throughout these years, the closing and secularization of Ayasofya remained a symbol, a painful one. This amazing mosque is in the heart of Istanbul and was a destination for many, especially on religious occasions. The generational and national memory of the mosque has kept the desire and the love for it alive. Many poets, writers, scholars, and politicians have talked about Ayasofya and their yearning for it to serve as a mosque once again. The poet Necip Fazıl Kısakürek talked about Ayasofya in 1965 and reassured the youth that it will indeed reopen one day and that “when it does, all the lost meanings will burst out of its doors.” Necmettin Erbakan, former prime minister, said that “Ayasofya is the symbol of haqq winning over the batil.” Ayasofya is the heart of Istanbul, and its secularization was a dagger in it, and for generations, we have felt the pain of the wound it opened.
So yes, the reopening of Ayasofya as a mosque is symbolic. However, it is a symbol that we have been waiting, praying, and longing for. It symbolizes the dagger being pulled out. It does not mean the wound has healed or even that the bleeding has stopped, but the dagger is out, and now that it is out we can hope and pray that the bleeding will stop, and then can we start healing.
About the Author: Esra Nihal Kandur is a British Istanbulite writer. She is studying war studies at King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter here.