One of the most eloquent chapters in Edward Gibbon’s vast book The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire comes as the book is drawing to an end, when Gibbon describes the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Centuries before, this had been the greatest city in Europe and the Mediterranean, but now it was a collection of shrunken and decaying villages whose emperor’s writ barely extended beyond its still impressive walls. On May 29, 1453 Sultan Mehmet II made his triumphant entry into a defeated city now given over to the plunder of its treasures and the captivity of its inhabitants. Arriving at the great cathedral of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, the new master of what remained of the Eastern Roman Empire entered its cavernous interior and at once decreed its conversion into a mosque. Then or on the following Friday a muezzin ascended to the roof of the church and called the faithful to prayer, and Mehmet performed his prostrations to Allah in front of what had been the high altar of Hagia Sophia.
Not so many hours had passed since this had been the scene of the final prayers for deliverance of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI; and not long before that the emperor had accepted the bait that had been dangled in front of his predecessors for 399 years, the re-union of the Orthodox Church to Rome and acceptance of the primacy of the See of St Peter. The division could be traced back at least as far as the dramatic moment in 1054 when the pope’s bad-tempered emissary Cardinal Humbert slammed a bull of excommunication on the high altar of this same cathedral, aimed at the patriarch but enveloping the emperor and by extension, the entire Greek Orthodox communion.
Today, Hagia Sophia is full of reminders of its Christian as well as its Muslim past. The Turks whitewashed or destroyed its mosaics, though sections have been uncovered; meanwhile the floor contains minbars (Muslim pulpits), while its four slender minarets make Aya Sofya, as it is now known, visible from miles away. Its massive dome became the model for mosques all over the Turkish empire, notably the Blue Mosque nearby. Among the hordes of visitors who come to Aya Sofya today, you will find coachloads of Orthodox pilgrims from Greece, led by their bishops and priests, and you will also find Turkish women in their hijabs. Last time I was in the gift shop the music being played in the background sounded like the romances that used to be sung in Ladino, or Judaeo-Spanish, by the once numerous Jews of Istanbul, welcomed to the city by the sultans after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.
So I think of Aya Sofya as a place where the character of old Istanbul still has resonance: a city of Turkish Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Sephardic Jews (not to forget the Armenians and other communities), a world that has largely vanished, and is now at risk of entirely disappearing.
Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, combined intense nationalism and an insistence on the lay, westernised identity of the new republic. Life did not stay comfortable for the Greeks and most other minorities as Turkey emphasised its Turkic identity. But this emphasis on the lay nature of the state was reflected in the conversion of Aya Sofya into a museum commemorating its Christian as well as its Muslim past. Now that President Erdoğan has moved decisively away from Ataturk’s position, and has emphasised again and again the Islamic nature of modern Turkey, the identity of Hagia Sophia is once again in the balance, with plans to convert it back into a mosque. This would mark the end of a particular conception of the Turkish state that had been bringing the country respect and influence. It would speak for the “new Ottoman imperialism” that Erdoğan espouses in his attempt to gain primacy in the region.
Possessiveness about sacred places is all too common in the Middle East. The Temple Mount in Jerusalem arouses fierce antagonisms. So does the inside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, with its many Christian sects marking out every inch. Claims are pressed for Muslim worship within the vast Great Mosque (now cathedral) of Córdoba. The enormous virtue of the present arrangements in Hagia Sophia is that, as a museum of the past, it is beyond the grasp of sects and factions.
David Abulafia has won the Wolfson History Prize 2020 for his book The Boundless Sea: a Human History of the Oceans (Allen Lane)