Saturday, August 1, 2020

Hagia Sophia Becomes A Mosque

Something that remains near constant across time and cultures is that when one group of people successfully invades, dominates, displaces, or conquers another group of people, members of the victorious group often, not always but often, decide to build their important political, social, or religious buildings and monuments on top of those of the defeated peoples, change the functions of those older buildings to something more in line with the values of the winning side, or just gleefully destroy the older structures altogether. 

It's a spike of the ball in the end zone complete with touchdown dance. It's hanging on the basketball rim after a particularly vicious dunk. It's watching the baseball soar out of the stadium, glaring at the pitcher, flipping the bat and taking a slow jaunt around the bases. In other words, it's something specifically designed to let the other group know that they lost and there's not a damn thing they can do about it. It's not a very nice thing to do. And that's the entire point. 


It's not often remarked upon or noted but Islam like Christianity, has its own history of invasion, conquest and imperialism. The Turks, who are originally from Central Asia, not only conquered the region known as Anatolia, now modern Turkey, but also much of Eastern Europe, including the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine), Constantinople, renamed Istanbul. 

In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks, who then went on a 400 year rampage in Eastern and Southern Europe. 

Upon taking Constantinople the Turks promptly turned the city's massive Eastern Orthodox cathedral Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), built by Romans in 537, into a mosque. In 1935 secular Turks changed it to a museum. 

In 2020 Turkish President Erdogan, perhaps feeling the need to throw some red meat to his conservative religious nationalist base, decided that Hagia Sophia would become a mosque again. 

On Friday, after 86 years as a museum, the great Hagia Sophia in Istanbul will once again echo with Muslim prayers. To Turkish Islamists, the conversion marks the fulfillment of a long-held dream of restoring a symbol of Ottoman grandeur. For many others around the world, the change is a dismaying setback for one of the world’s greatest architectural and cultural landmarks. 

Grandly arrayed on a hilltop over the Bosporus where it divides Europe and Asia, the Hagia Sophia’s 15-century history is suffused with events, myths and symbols important to both East and West.

Reversing Ataturk’s secular legacy plays well among Turkish nationalists, for whom the museum inside the Hagia Sophia long represented a humiliating foreign imposition and a blot on the Ottoman past they glorify. And evidently not only nationalists. The conversion of the museum has drawn little criticism within Turkey and among Muslims outside, and all political parties save one applauded the change.


UNESCO was more direct. A statement from the organization said it “deeply regrets” that the decision was made without any prior discussion, adding: “Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.” 
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Now as Turkey is a sovereign nation state, nationalist minded Turks will claim that this is entirely their business and everyone else should butt out. And there is definitely something to that POV.
The problem is that this sort of behavior gives validity to the idea that some Muslims are hypocrites who are just fine with majoritarian muscle flexing when they are in the majority but make appeals to universalist values when they are in the minority
That definitely seems to be the case here. I would argue, as above that this is not a failing peculiar to any particular religion or nationality, but to everyone.  That's why we should have certain protections that are beyond majority rule so that everyone can be protected. 
Also we might remember that 700 miles to the south, in Jerusalem, there are Islamic places of worship that are built very near to and/or on top of Jewish places of worship. The Jewish holy places were unquestionably there first. And today Jerusalem is under Jewish control. Would Muslim Turks be happy if Israeli Jews, pointing to the Turkish example, decided to close down Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, and reopen them as synagogues? To ask the question is of course to answer it.
So if you would be upset if someone did that to your religious places in areas where you lack power, then why are you doing that to someone else's religious places in areas where you hold power? Doesn't seem too wise. 
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