Hagia Sofia: “It’s like if Saint Peter’s had been turned into a mosque”

“The city that Constantine had protected for more than a thousand years… has now undergone, in this unfortunate year, the destruction by the Turks. I suffer at the thought that the temple of Saint Sophia, famous all over the world, has been destroyed or desecrated. This is a second death for Homer, a second passing for Plato”. These words by the great humanist, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II, were written five centuries ago, after the great Christian city of Constantinople fell to the Ottomans.

By Giulio Meotti*

Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan issued an unprecedented decree converting Hagia Sophia once again into a mosque. Erdogan’s decree is a gesture of immense symbolism and historic meaning. “A threat against Hagia Sophia,” said the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, “is a threat for the whole of Christian civilization”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated: “We urge the Government of Turkey to continue to maintain the Hagia Sophia as a museum, as an exemplar of its commitment to respect the faith traditions and diverse history that contributed to the Republic of Turkey, and to ensure it remains accessible to all”.

For 916 years, Hagia Sophia had been the “world’s largest basilica” and the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church where, for centuries, emperors were crowned.

On May 29, 1453, Sultan Mehmet II, riding a white horse, arrived at the Hagia Sophia, the cathedral of “Divine Wisdom” built a thousand years earlier by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Sultan Mehmet II, after bringing an end to the great Christian Byzantine empire, prayed to Allah in the largest church of Eastern Christianity.

“It’s like if Saint Peter’s had been turned into a mosque,” said Michael Talbot, a lecturer of history at the University of Greenwich. “It’s the fact that the seat of that church is no longer operating as a church and is in the hands of a rival religion”.

Under the Ottomans, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque and remained so until 1934, when the secularist Turkish leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, turned it into a museum. It was to have been the emblem of a new Turkey, capable of blending the features of the East and the West.

Last week, after Erdogan’s new decree, Islamists, shouting “Allahu Akbar”, converged on the former cathedral. The site will be reopen for Muslim prayers as a mosque on July 24. It is believed that during the Muslim prayers, Hagia Sophia’s world famous Byzantine mosaics will be covered.

Turkey did not, strictly speaking, need another mosque: in recent years Erdogan has built 17,000 mosques in the country. According to Ertugrul Özkök, writing in the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet: READ TH REST OF THE ANALYSIS HERE

*Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author