One of the world’s most wondrously beautiful and historic monuments has had to bow before the ultra-nationalist and conservative forces that seem to be in the ascendant nowadays. The Hagia Sofia (Ayasufiya in Turkish) in Istanbul opened for prayers last Friday for the first time since the authorities ruled it could be converted into a mosque. The site was first a church, then converted to a mosque, and finally became a museum. In many ways, it symbolises the turbulent history of Turkey. Its status has changed, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had his way.
Before going forward, first some history.
As the western part of the great Roman Empire crumbled under the onslaught of what were called “barbaric tribes”, its centre moved to the east, Byzantium, replacing Rome as the capital city. Byzantium would be renamed Constantinople, after Constantine the Great, who brought Christianity into the Roman Empire. Hagia Sofia was built under one of his successors, Justinian 1, in the sixth century AD and became the biggest cathedral in Christendom. Then came the equally mighty Islamic Ottomans, who captured Constantinople, renaming it Istanbul. The Ottoman Empire reached its peak under one of the greatest monarchs in history, Suleiman the Magnificent.
At one time the Empire stretched over north Africa, right up to modern-day Morocco, and included the entire Middle East, Mesopotamia, a large part of the Saudi peninsula, and even went into Europe, overrunning present-day Hungary and Ukraine. The Ottoman forces were only stopped at the gates of Vienna. They led the world in medicine and the sciences. Many of us like to think of the Islamic world as being regressive, terrorism-prone and closed to modern ideas. But it then dazzled everybody, with its military prowess and advanced technological knowledge, whereas the other Christian kingdoms were seeped in backwardness. However, prejudices die hard.
Under the Turks, Hagia Sofia became a mosque, with typical Islamic minarets added to it. The greatest architect of the time, a Turk named Mimar Sinan, had a hand in the additions. He also constructed many of the mosques in Istanbul and landscaped the city, making it one of the most stunning in the world, as it is even today, straddling the Bosporus Strait, one foot in Europe, the other in Asia. Needless to say, a mosque could not have the Christian motifs that covered the walls and niches of Hagia. These included beautiful mosaics, added over the centuries. But they were not destroyed; only covered with plaster. As a building, it retained its splendour, dominating the city.
After 600 years of rule, the Ottoman Empire started to decline, under the pressure of nationalist revolts within its realm and a modernising, expanding Europe. The nadir came during World War I, when Turkey, which was allied with Germany, was defeated by the Allies. Various parts of the Empire broke away and became independent. But complete disintegration was prevented by one of the most remarkable men of the 20th century, Mustafa Kemal, who was later given the honorific name “Ataturk” (father of the Turks). He rallied the demoralised Turkish troops and made them a proud force to reckon with, once again. He was in some ways similar to Napoleon Bonaparte, a military genius, yet also someone with a progressive outlook. Kemal Ataturk realised that Turkey had to modernise and he went about the task with a vengeance, westernising his nation and removing religious obscurantism. He even banned the “fez” and Turks took to western-style clothes, abandoning their traditional attire. Perhaps most radical of all, he replaced the Perso-Arabic Turkish script with the Roman (Indonesia did the same, and interestingly enough, our own Subhas Chandra Bose proposed doing it to Hindi, to make it more acceptable to south Indians).
Among these reforming measures, the status of Hagia Sofia was changed to that of a “museum”. The plaster covering the mosaics and other Christian motifs was painstakingly removed to bring the original church back to life. Hagia Sofia became a unique monument, with some of the best Christian and Islamic creations of ancient art and architecture, all under one roof, or dome as in this case. It deservedly earned a UNESCO heritage tag and has, since then, been attracting millions of tourists. It is truly one of the great wonders of the world, on a par with Taj Mahal, and Cambodia’s Hindu-Buddhist Angkor Wat temple complex.
With the status of Hagia Sofia changed, the Christian motifs, including the wondrous mosaics, will have to be covered up again, as Muslims cannot possibly worship in a mosque with motifs of another religion on the walls. UNESCO will almost certainly withdraw its heritage tag and fewer tourists will visit the place. But that will not matter to President Erdogan, though neither he nor his political party dare say a word against Kemal Ataturk, since he is still revered as the father of the Turkish nation.
In many ways, Erdogan and his rise to power mirrors that of Narendra Modi. Both were democratically elected and are hugely popular. Both are religious conservatives. In Modi’s case, the reviled figure is Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s moderniser. The extreme Hindutva fringe don’t dare run down Mahatma Gandhi, though many of them would like to do so, as they have a secret admiration for Nathuram Godse, Gandhi’s assassin. There is also a parallel between Hagia Sofia and the Ram Mandir issue. Both have aroused evocative religious sentiments. Is it just a coincidence that the dates that have been announced for starting the construction of the Ram temple are so close to the Bihar election? Shouldn’t the government be concentrating all its energy and resources in fighting the pandemic? Or is it that the authorities believe, as a mahant-like figure said on TV just the other day, that with the building of the temple, Lord Ram will rid the country of the coronavirus?
— The writer is a veteran journalist
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