The magnificent cathedral, Hagia Sophia, Church of Holy Wisdom, is the largest building of the Byzantium period, built in 537 AD, in Constantinople, situated on the Bosporus, and now in modern-day Turkey. It was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453 AD.
Empires come and go, their treasures change hands over the centuries, buildings are destroyed, and in some cases, the buildings are used for different purposes.
Over the centuries, under the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia had been used as a mosque. At the dissolution of the Ottoman empire in 1923, under the leadership of Ataturk, a secular state was created, with tolerance of all faiths. Accordingly, in 1934, the Hagia Sophia was made into a museum and no forms of worship were allowed. This protected the cathedral not only for the Turks but for the world, and Turkey gained the respect of the neighbouring countries.
However, the current Turkish government has become more religious and has dismantled many of Ataturk’s secular values. The latest change is to remove the museum status of the Hagia Sophia, and make it a mosque again.
This is causing quite a stir. Certainly, the decision is Turkey’s, but is it necessary or wise? The designation, as a world heritage site, under the UNESCO gives the edifice world status as an important cultural treasure, not restricted to one country or one religion.
It is true that other conquerors have repurposed many such buildings, and the one that comes to mind is the Moorish Alhambra in Spain.
The exquisite mosque in Cordoba built in 784 AD has within its walls a Renaissance-style church erected in 1520 by Christian conquerors Ferdinand and Isabella. Muslims cannot pray in this mosque, but Christian masses are held.
As a Muslim, am I not discomforted by the church within the mosque? Yes, I am, but I do not ask for the destruction of the church. I was saddened when the ancient Babri Mosque, built 1528, was destroyed in India because some Hindus believed that it was built over a temple and the birthplace of Lord Rama.
However, why should there be a tit-for-tat in an increase of intolerance? Turkey’s current stand for the museum status for Hagia Sophia is admired and appreciated by the entire world community as a mark of respect.
There are many stories of intolerance among the various religious communities, including Muslim, but I prefer the historical incidents in Muslim history that demonstrate the compassion and tolerance of Muslims. Why cannot present-day Muslims build on these experiences?
For example, the earliest records of the Prophet Mohammad include treaties made with two non-Muslim groups, one with the Christian monks of the Monastery of Saint Catherine of the Mount of Sinai in 628 CE, and a second with the people of Medina, including Jews and Christians in 622 AD.
Another historical incident is about the Muslim siege of Jerusalem in 637 AD, when the Patriarch Sophronius insisted that he would only surrender to the Caliph Omar.
Omar then travelled to Jerusalem to meet with Sophronius and, at this meeting, the Patriarch offered the church to the Caliph for his prayers. Omar said he would not use the church as he did not want his people to take over any of the Christian churches for Muslim use.
Turkey’s government, which prides itself on being strict Muslim, would do well to model its values on those of Caliph Omar’s, and let the Christian cathedral continue as a museum.
For me, a personal experience is in Canada. As the Christian population moved to the suburbs of Toronto, churches were deconsecrated and sold as simple properties, and one such building became a mosque in downtown Toronto.
As far as I know, unlike churches, mosques are not seen as holy spaces requiring any acts of deconsecration. Any space can be used for Muslim prayers.
I know of incidents when churches have allowed Muslims to use their facilities for their prayers. Are there examples of mosques being offered to other believers for their religious services?
Let us hope that Turkey will listen to many world leaders and allow Hagia Sophia to remain a museum, as designated by UNESCO, to be shared by all, as citizens of the world.