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Dangers of Convenient Universalism: Power Relations and Responsibility of Scholars on the Hagia Sophia

By Axel B. Corlu, Ph.D.

The recent reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque by the (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan regime generated heated debates among scholars, politicians, and the public. A recent article by Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycioglu, titled “Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present” offers sophisticated but ultimately convenient universalism, where both the past and the present are presented from a distorted lens, with strategic omissions.[1]

According to Blessing and Yaycioglu, there is a binary “conquest narrative” that both the supporters and opponents of the Hagia Sophia reconversion utilize, and that in essence this simplistic view does not reflect the “complex history of Ottoman Hagia Sophia.” The authors go on to label the concerns about the protection of the structure, especially regarding the issue of the mosaics as ahistorical “disinformation,” and offer a “correct” version of history.

I will follow their text in the same order, and point out the multiple issues.

First, the authors begin by stating that Ali Erbas, the Director of Religious Affairs, ascended the minbar “decorated with green standards, holding a sword…” For a text that opposes the “conquest narrative,” it is remarkable that the meaning of the green standards (as clear and unambiguous a reference to conquest as possible) and the symbolic –albeit bumbling—attempt to hold the sword in the left hand (as a gesture of “peace”)[2], is left unmentioned. The authors inform us that the sword, as a symbol, was not associated with conquest, but the ruler in the Ottoman context. This is quite debatable; Ottoman sultans have been depicted in many different poses, adorned with rich symbolism that incorporates multiple elements. In the case of Mehmed II himself, a famous portrait from the Topkapi Palace Museum, attributed to Siblizade Ahmed, shows him smelling a rose in his right hand, which also features a zihgir, a thumb ring used in Oriental archery, on his thumb.


To simplify, this is the image of the earthly, intellectual, and even spiritual ruler who nonetheless reminds us of his military might with that ring. One could argue that the zihgir represents his personal martial prowess as the conqueror, rather than the abstract concept of military might or conquest, but these fine distinctions ultimately do not hide the fact that the zihgir is also a symbol of conquest, just as the sword is in many other depictions. The fact that the sword can be attributed to the person of the sultan as a symbol does not negate or exclude its meaning as a tool of military might and conquest; they are inextricably linked. The problematic “corrective” remark about the sword being a symbol of the ruler rather than conquest thus sets the tone for the rest of the authors’ arguments.

The authors then have a brief descriptive interlude about the agenda of Islamists and conservative nationalists in Turkey, potential motivations of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan regarding the method and timing of this move, and so on. They conclude this section with the heart of their essay: “…in this essay, we would like to divert the conversation and discuss how the conquest narrative, which is shared by those who oppose and support the decision, does not do justice to Hagia Sophia and its architecturally, spiritually, and emotionally charged history.” This sort of interjection, very appealing to the academic mind, nonetheless includes ominous terminology such as “doing justice” to the Hagia Sophia and its “…emotionally charged history.” This narrative at once establishes the issue of “justice,” not in the sense of the expropriation and destruction of Christian and/or minority populations and the appropriation of their cultural heritage, but as in, “Let us not be unfair to the Ottomans or the Turkish Republic…” and the fact that those who respond to the Hagia Sophia issue might be affected by the same “emotionally charged” aspects. In other words, the authors are guiding us to focus on “justice,” as long as it is to protect the powerful who do not need any protection –there appears to be no need to consider the concept of justice for the dispossessed, whom the Hagia Sophia also symbolizes. In addition, by utilizing the rhetorical device of “emotionally charged” responses, the authors place themselves above the “emotional” multitudes whose judgment might be questionable. Describing conflicting positions with this device does not render them invalid even if they were “emotionally charged,” but I also argue that the authors themselves represent a very ideological and selective reading of history in their article.


Second, the authors utilize a well-established cornerstone of debate technique, in building a false dichotomy with two straw man arguments: the representation of the vast variety of responses to the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is that it is a binary, in the “Ottoman/Byzantine, mosque/church, Muslim/Christian, and secularism/Islamism” spectrum. This is perhaps an astute observation for people who are truly approaching this matter in such binary fashion, but it also provides the authors with a convenient base from which they can dismiss all positions that focus on the past and present conquest dimension of the matter. People who support the reconversion and people who oppose the conversion thus become mere one-dimensional caricatures in this duality, when the reality is much more complex. What follows is a suitably simplified summary of the pro and anti-conversion positions, reinforcing the two straw men being built before us.

Third, the authors suggest that the 1934 decision to transform the building into a museum “was much more than a gesture to the West.” They argue that the republican regime was involved in a “search for a new engagement with the Ottoman and Byzantine pasts and the cultural heritage of Istanbul and Turkey.” They argue that the republican regime wanted to make a historical claim to all layers of the “Turkish past: Ottoman, Byzantine, Roman, and earlier.”

While the republican regime was indeed interested in recasting the Ottoman past (usually not in a very bright light, as it also distanced itself from many of its aspects and dictated a highly selective version of its history) and kept busy trying to prove that “Turks” had existed in Anatolia for millennia through the Hittites and other ancient peoples with an eclectic mix of the racial theories and pseudo-science of the time (including the infamous obsession with the morphology and measurements of skulls), it hardly made an effort to understand, teach, or preserve its Byzantine past, let alone “making a claim” to it, if what we mean by “making a claim” is anything more than a possessive but not inclusive approach.

Indeed, the Byzantine past of Turkey remained either buried, neglected, or carefully molded in the public imagination, as nothing more than the “other” that had happened to be there before. At no point did the republic genuinely try to make a direct connection to the Byzantines beyond their role as the adversary in history textbooks, the adversary that had been vanquished, the adversary that had nothing to do with the ethnicity or cultural heritage of the people in Turkey. The examples for this would fill a hefty book, but nowhere is it more easily seen than in universities, where for nearly the entire existence of the Turkish Republic, Byzantine history remained a footnote, without any research institutes, funds, encouragement or space for the very few scholars and courses taught on the subject. That reality has changed in the last two decades, for complex reasons.

But at the end of the day, the museum conversion of the Hagia Sophia by the republican regime was very much a gesture to the West, as well as a gesture to various domestic “threats;” like other gestures that were presented as “revolutions” from changing the alphabet to regulating clothing (and enforcing it with violence when necessary), the Hagia Sophia served a practical purpose in its symbolism. Beyond its practical use as described, it was neither part of a grand historical or intellectual vision, nor a noble gesture of “tolerance” by a regime that did its very best to eliminate the remaining diversity of cultures and religions in its lands for decades to come through acts ranging from the population exchange with Greece, to the Izmir Economics Congress of 1923 where the elimination of “foreign” bourgeoisie and its replacement with a “national” one was planned, to the Varlik Vergisi (Capital Tax) of 1942, among many other examples. Such a regime surely could not care less about multiculturalism, inclusivity, or the Byzantine past as the authors suggest.

In the Kemalist imagination, having the Hagia Sophia as a museum represented the best compromise, and they successfully “sold” this vision to the scholars in the West, many of whom to this day think this was a good “compromise,” albeit with various well-justified technical caveats as in the case of Blessing and Yaycioglu. This idea also worked very well for the urban Kemalist elite and their newly created middle class throughout the 20th century, because it did not require them to symbolically come to terms with the vast destruction visited upon the minorities of the land, from whom they had acquired significant aspects of their material and cultural wealth via direct or indirect appropriation, and it remained as a message to the provincial people they looked down upon as unwashed Muslims, who received the message: “stay down.”

For the later incarnations and generations of the beneficiaries of the Kemalist regime in society, it was perfectly fine for the Hagia Sophia to be used as a scene for nude “art” photos, but to have an Orthodox mass there would have been unthinkable.
Screen Shot 2020-08-05 at 10.30.53 AM

The “Tasteful” Duality? Modern Dancer versus Corpulent Muslim in the Hagia Sophia

A recently popular side-by-side photo showing a modern dancer on the floor of the Hagia Sophia versus a corpulent visitor lying on the newly installed green carpet is shown as a sign of the decay of civilization in Turkey, which perfectly illustrates this mindset.[3]

Hence, their outrage at the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia takes mostly the form of preserving the founding elements of the republic, and the imaginary future “defeat” of the provincial Muslims which have now “conquered” “their” cities, a “noble lost cause” for the 21st century. But when scholars who are not tied to such ideologies try to rise above the fracas with straw man arguments that infantilize the sides and caricaturize the very real, historically very valid arguments centered around the “conquest” narrative, they inadvertently contribute to the reductionist, appropriationist vision of the Kemalist regime.

Fourth, the authors attack the straw man version of the conquest narrative they had created earlier by correctly pointing out that the Hagia Sophia “took on a rich symbolism in the Ottoman imagination, along with the Roman Empire.” But their following statements are truly non sequiturs with no connection to the original statement: “The Ottomans did not share a conquest obsession with modern Ottoman-romantics.” This is difficult to understand. Even without going deeply into the inherited concepts of Dar al-Islam (House/Territory of Islam), Dar al-‘Ahd/Dar al-Sulh (House/Territory of Truce/Treaty) and Dar al-Harb (House/Territory of War), and the way Ottomans utilized these concepts, it is hardly debatable that the Ottoman Empire was built upon the foundation of continuous conquest, and the ideology of conquest that accompanied it. Not only was the Ottoman state founded on the very idea of conquest and operated with the premise of constant expansion for social, political and economic reasons for several centuries (and a cascade of structural political and economic issues made themselves known once this expansion could not be sustained for many reasons), the capture of Constantinople and the assumption of Roman titles, most notably “Caesar,” was one of the essential elements in the creation and maintenance of the Ottoman rulers’ self-image, legitimacy and status.

The authors also point out the “Ottomans’ centuries-long stewardship of the building, with multiple restorations to ensure its structural integrity. These interventions were not only due to the fact that Hagia Sophia served as a mosque and was part of a royal Ottoman endowment (…) but also closely connected to the central role that the building played in the ways in which the Ottomans framed their own past, and that of their imperial city.”

Let us first point out that emphasizing the Ottoman upkeep of the Hagia Sophia is irrelevant; it was the most magnificent, imposing, central building of their capital city, and the symbol of its conquest once it was a mosque; of course they were going to do their best for its upkeep! Obviously, the Ottomans did not maintain the building out of the goodness of their hearts, or for their concern with modern concepts like historic preservation, but for entirely practical, eminently justifiable reasons of their own. It served a purpose, so it was maintained. Many other buildings of Byzantine heritage did not receive the same attention; the hippodrome, which was already in a partially ruined state when they conquered the city, was left as a ruin, and even used as a site for dumping the construction materials and excavated earth during the construction of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque in the 17th century, burying it entirely with the exception of the sphendone and some of the monuments on the spina. The old palace complex nearby, also in disrepair at the time of the conquest, was not restored and reused, either. These were without a doubt perfectly reasonable actions as they rebuilt the city. Thinking of buildings in disrepair, the Ottomans also demolished monumental architecture when it served a symbolic purpose: Consider the Fatih Mosque, built on top of the foundations of the demolished Church of the Holy Apostles, which housed the tombs of Byzantine emperors. The authors conveniently disregard such examples as they attempt to paint an ahistorical picture in which the Ottomans are almost presented as benevolent, unequivocal preservers of the Byzantine past, through the example of the Hagia Sophia alone. It is indeed true that the Hagia Sophia served as the model for imperial mosque architecture for centuries (and unsuccessful attempts were made to exceed the height and size of its dome, a curious pursuit that is difficult to understand, if one is limited to the logic of the text that treats conquest as a mere ahistorical “narrative”), but this fact, presented by itself in the text, does not reinforce any of the authors’ arguments.

Without a doubt, in many ways, the Ottomans were a continuation of the Byzantine past; from their land management and taxation systems to their bureaucracy and parts of their military organization, from their geopolitical priorities/challenges to their palace music, food, and dynastic imagery, as well as relationships between the state and religion or the relationship of the capital to the provinces, as I have discussed in multiple fora for many years. Certainly, the Ottomans and the Byzantines were neither pure villains nor absolute saints; that is not the issue here. But observing these continuities cannot logically lead to an argument that denies the role and importance of the various conquest “narratives” for the Ottomans, the republican regime, or the Erdogan regime.

Following the same path as the authors, we next come to the observation that the mosaics remained in view until the sixteenth century, and were only partially covered all the way until the eighteenth century. The point that Ottoman intervention should not be confused with or compared to Byzantine iconoclasm of the eighth and ninth centuries is a fair one, and I agree that a narrative that “equates Ottoman approaches to Hagia Sophia with iconophobia and iconoclasm is incorrect” but I do not think it is necessarily “marked by Islamophobia and Orientalism” given the fact that Byzantine art and architecture suffered tremendous degradation and damage, sometimes in the name of Islam, and other times at the hands of unscrupulous republican bureaucrats, treasure hunters, or the common public in more recent times. Any scholar, casual observer, or visitor of Byzantine, Armenian, or Syriac heritage sites in Turkey will be more than cognizant of the intentional damage done to frescoes, mosaics, and other elements of Christian architecture. The damage was done over a period of centuries under different conditions, the perpetrators were/are not a homogeneous group, and the practice ranges from officially undertaken projects to “simply” neglected sites. This is an undeniable fact, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that the few token examples in the Ottoman era, republican era or today somehow represent a “preservationist” or “tolerant” attitude when in the vast majority of locations they were covered at best and destroyed at worst. Today, the Turkish state uses sites such as the restored Aghtamar Cathedral of the Holy Cross or the Sumela Monastery as tokens of its hollow “multiculturalism” and “tolerance.” As scholars, we have a grave responsibility to challenge this narrative. This multiculturalism narrative and tokenism of Turkey is a propaganda tool designed to cover the simultaneous appropriation and destruction of the past and the present, motivated to a significant extent by the conquest narrative. The conquest narrative was a real factor in history, and it is a real factor today. Ignoring it, reducing it to merely an “incorrect” historical interpretation, or diminishing it to an ahistorical approach is dangerous.

We as scholars have a responsibility that extends beyond the intricacies of our immediate fields. The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is about power; in a world where power relations past and present influence the lives of millions of people, and history is weaponized for various agendas, we do not have the luxury of pretending to “stay above it” in a noncommittal manner.

[1] Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycioglu, “Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present” Berkley Forum (in response to the editorial “Hagia Sophia: From Museum to Mosque” on July 17, 2020) July 27, 2020. https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/responses/beyond-conquest-narratives-hagia-sophia-past-and-present

[2] In the Ottoman tradition, as is the case in some Central Asian and Near Eastern traditions regarding the sword, holding it in the right hand in a ceremonial occasion indicates the potential intent to use it; in other words, it is not a “peaceful” gesture.

[3] https://twitter.com/1filinta1/status/1288738592215400448




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