Goodbye Haghia Sophia, Hello Ayasofya

This video was a depressing one to make. Throughout my time in Turkey, President Erdogan threatened to close the Haghia Sophia Museum and turn it into a Mosque. Now he’s finally done it. It’s possible to argue that he did it because he feels internally insecure, or because he feels internationally secure. Maybe it’s both.

I mixed the personal and the historical in this one in a way that I’m not entirely sure worked. It’s a news story I felt I had to address, but what I really think I’m trying to say with this video is pretty simple: It makes me sad.

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Video Transcript after the jump…

Hey there. Let me start off by saying that the Haghia Sophia, despite its history, is owned and run by the Turks, and it has been for over 500 years. It’s on Turkish soil, the Turkish government pays for its upkeep and operation, and as far as I’m concerned they have the right to do whatever the hell they want to do with it. Western Complaints about this always come with a tinge of Imperialism, and the idea that we get to decide what other people do on their own territory. That idea is something we should reject. All that said, though, Friday’s announcement that after talking about it for decades, the Turkish government will be turning Haghia Sophia back into a Mosque makes me kind of sad. It seems like failure on all sides.

Haghia Sophia was built almost 1500 years ago by Justinian, the most powerful of the Byzantine Emperors. It survived as a Church until Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453. It then spent just under 500 years as a mosque. In 1934 Ataturk, the modernizing founder of Turkey turned it into a Museum. I lived in Turkey from 2011 to 2016 and Haghia Sophia is probably my favorite building in the world.

After a year or so of hosting tourists I refused to go to Topkapi palace or the Basilica cistern any longer. But I would go to Haghia Sophia no matter what. If I went too long without visitors I would just go myself. Something about the grand mix of the building, with the names of the rightly guided caliphs right next to those creepy old school greek mosaics of Angels just embodied history to me.

It’s not yet clear whether visitors have lost the ability to marvel at all these artworks. Everything depends on the implementation. Will the old mosaics be whitewashed over for another couple hundred years, or will they be temporarily shielded during Muslim religious services? It’s easy to imagine clever ways to get the building to serve spiritual and cultural purposes. But it’s undeniable that something will be lost by turning it into a religious building.

Ataturk’s choice to turn Haghia Sophia into a mosque was only the most visible sign of Turkey’s new orientation in the 1920s and 1930s. For most of a century, the country pursued a policy of openness to Europe and fervent modernization. There were many ups and some horrifying downs, but on balance it was a tremendously successful effort.

100 years ago Turkey managed to stave off an attempt to wipe out their country by tiny Greece, but it was a close run thing. Today Turkey regularly goes toe to toe with Russia, a former superpower. Population is not everything of course. But over the past century the Turks have also experienced extraordinary gains in literacy, the economy and a whole range of other metrics too. Ataturk’s policy of openness and modernization has been an incredible success.

Haghia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque is a sign that this policy may be ending. It’s common to blame Turkish president Erdogan for this break between Turkey and the West, but we are guilty too. Erdogan may have had ulterior motives, but he spent the first decade or so of his time in power diligently working to meet the requirements for accession to the European Union.

Turkey’s efforts to join the EU have been rejected for decades now. Turks have watched as country after country that didn’t even exist when Turkey first applied have been admitted to the Union. In 2011 Turkey volunteered to help the United States overthrow Assad in Syria. They were repaid by the US’s cozying up to a terrorist group dedicated to Turkey’s geographical dismemberment.

Haghia Sophia’s transition makes me sad. It is absolutely a sign of Turkey’s rupture with the West. But we abandoned Turkey, just as much as Turkey abandoned us.