“The conversion of places of worship was a common practice”

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The Cross: What is the place of Hagia Sophia in Ottoman history?

Isabelle Poutrin: The Basilica of the Holy Wisdom was built by the Byzantines with the idea of ​​competing with the temple of Solomon. At the time of its inauguration in 537, the emperor Justinian would have exclaimed: “I conquered you, Solomon!” Craftsman of the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II did not wish to destroy this monument whose architecture, in particular the dome, amazes him. Nourished by Greek culture, eager to build an empire up to that of Alexander the Great, he wants to take on the Byzantine heritage to surpass it.

→ EXPLANATION. Hagia Sophia, Erdogan’s Ottoman dream

The basilica was then converted into a mosque, as was the practice: the crosses and bells were removed, a minbar (pulpit), a mihrab (niche indicating the direction of Mecca) and carpets are installed. The Christian mosaics are preserved and will not be covered until the 17th century, during a period of Islamic stiffening.

Hagia Sophia of Istanbul

Mehmet II, like his successors, will never stop wanting to build “even more beautiful” and “even bigger” mosques, without ever succeeding in matching the dimensions of the dome. Hagia Sophia also remained the mosque in which the sultan came to pray after his enthronement. Understanding this fascination of the Ottoman sultans for Hagia Sophia allows us to measure its symbolic charge for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Has the conversion of a place of worship been a common practice in the past?

I. P. : It began with the Christianization of the Roman Empire and the reuse of pagan temples. In Spain, Jewish, Christian and Muslim places of worship were constantly transformed when borders moved. To the practical argument – it is much simpler to reassign a building than to destroy it – is added political motivation: taking possession of its most important places of worship impresses the adversary … Later, the conversion of churches was also common during the Protestant Reformation.

Which of these past conversions are problematic today?

I. P. : First, in many cases, the status quo prevails. The Lala Mustafa Pasha mosque, for example, located in northern Cyprus, in Famagusta, was once Saint Nicholas Cathedral before being transformed during the Ottoman conquest of the island in 1571. In Spain, old synagogues that have become churches, and still used for worship, give rise to a memorial tourism for visitors, Jewish or not, in search of this ancient past, without giving rise to particular difficulties.

The situation is more complicated in Cordoba, with the old mosque that has become a cathedral. On its website, the bishopric of Cordoba only describes it as “cathedral”, erasing its Muslim past. Tour guides call it a “mosque” and some, in the name of a somewhat idealized vision of the history of Andalusia, also claim this heritage. The names sometimes reveal our unease.

Why these current tensions around Hagia Sophia?

I. P. : The particularity of Sainte-Sophie is that it was transformed into a museum in 1934 and it is this status quo that President Erdogan is no longer satisfied with. But questioning it is explosive, given the history of the monument, and its location in Istanbul, the hub of European geography, a symbol of what has long been a border between empires. The trap would be to respond by defending a Western Christian heritage while forgetting that Hagia Sophia has been a museum for more than half a century. Given the wide variety of places of worship reassigned, we do not know what could happen if everyone started to claim their own …

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