On the July 10th 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that the holy site, the Hagia Sophia, would be re-consecrated as a mosque. This change comes 85 years after it was turned into a museum and almost 1,500 years since it was founded as a Greek Orthodox cathedral. The official justification that the Erdoğan regime has issued is that it was illegal for the Turkish government to de-consecrate a mosque. As such, when they deconsecrated the Hagia Sophia in 1935, it was an illegal act. They further claim that foreign powers should not have a say on the status of the Hagia Sophia, a function of Erdoğan’s increasingly neo-Ottoman nationalism. However, emotions around the status of the cathedral/mosque/museum run deep, and act as a key fault line between Turkey’s conflicting identities as a majority Muslim, but an officially secular, nation.

From its construction in the mid-6th century, the Hagia Sophia has always fulfilled a political role. It’s founder, the Byzantine emperor Justinian, saw it as a way to announce the return of Roman power a century after its collapse in the West, and showcase the divine sanctity of his reconquest of the Roman world. The cathedral lay at the heart of Byzantine politics for the next 900 years as the place where the Emperor would be crowned and ceremonially pay his top officials.

In its role as the seat of the Orthodox Church, the cathedral symbolically united the Byzantine Empire. It was so spectacular that the historian Procopius remarked that “the church is singularly full of light”, and that its vast dome appeared as though it was “suspended from heaven”. Its riches, however, also attracted enemies, and when Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders in 1203 its greatest treasures were carried off to Venice. Nonetheless the city, with Hagia Sophia at its heart, gained the attention of the rising Ottoman Empire, who viewed it as their divine calling to take the city which had resisted many previous attacks by Muslim forces. When the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453, Sultan Mehmed II rode his horse into the Hagia Sophia and declared that it would become a mosque, underlining the demise of Byzantium and the rise of Turkish power.

The Hagia Sophia, now renamed the Mosque of Ayasofya, remained the spiritual heart of the Ottoman Empire for the next 460 years. With the Ottoman Sultans declaring themselves caliphs of Islam, the site of Hagia Sophia became seen as one of the holiest sites in Islam behind only Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, a belief which many Turks still hold. In this period Ottoman engineers worked to save the dome when it was close to collapse, but also whitewashed the unique Byzantine mosaics which proved an anathema to its status as a mosque.

With the collapse of the Ottomans in the wake of their defeat in the First World War, Turkey faced invasion by the Greeks, partly motivated by a desire to retake Constantinople, now renamed Istanbul, and Hagia Sophia along with it. However, Turks rallied around the nationalism of Mustafa Kemal (known as Ataturk, meaning “Father of the Turks”) who repelled the invasion and sought to ‘westernise’ Turkey. Part of Ataturk’s programme was wide ranging secularisation which included the abolition of the caliphate and religious laws; promoting civil equality for women; and discouraged the wearing of religious clothing. The most symbolic reform was the aforementioned conversion of Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum in 1935, which included the restoration of its mosaics, in an attempt to show the modern Turkish state transcended any religious divides.

To this day, Ataturk remains the most revered figure in Turkey and any visitor will not fail to notice that his portraits and statues adorn every street. However, while the person of Ataturk remains revered, his policies (eponymously described as Kemalism) were always controversial, enjoying the most support in the developed coastal regions with the interior remaining deeply traditionalist. Since 2003 the political legacy of Ataturk has been under attack by the government of Erdoğan who, first as Prime Minister and now as President, has increasingly centralised power in his own hands. Compared to the opposition, Erdogan’s AK Party is markedly more conservative and sympathetic to more radical forms of Islam. His government has seen the expansion of religious schools and promotion of public Islamic iconography. This has brought him into conflict with the many Turks who still support Kemalist secularism, notably the newly elected Mayor of Istanbul.

It was therefore in this context that Erdoğan re-consecrated the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. For his supporters it represented the devout majority reclaiming what they see as one of the holiest sites in Islam, and plays in to a foreign policy which has been seen as increasingly revanchist, with Turkey playing a major role in former Ottoman territories like Libya and Syria. Opposition parties however have accused Erdoğan of using the issue as a way to cynically court votes in the face of economic stagnation and increased unease at his authoritarianism.

Opposition to the move on Hagia Sophia has been echoed by commentators outside of Turkey. Both the Pope and the Patriarch of Moscow have voiced despair at the move, the latter saying that “a threat to the Hagia Sophia is a threat to our spirituality”. The move has also reignited tensions with Turkey’s longtime rival Greece, with the Greek Prime Minister saying he will push for the EU to enact sanctions against Turkey. The re-consecration has also caused alarm outside of the sphere of geo-politics, with academics fearing that the building’s Byzantine mosaics which were painstakingly restored during Hagia Sophia’s time as a museum may now be under threat.

Ultimately, the Hagia Sophia remains today what it always has been over the course of its 1,500-year history: a unique political tool and lightning rod for controversy, as well as one of the most visually stunning and culturally important buildings on earth. It’s foundation symbolised the restoration of Rome’s power and the glory of Justinian; the conversion to a mosque in 1453 heralded the rise of the Ottoman Empire; while it’s transformation as a museum marked Turkey’s arrival into the modern, secular 20th century. Erdoğan’s controversial move shows the continued power of Hagia Sophia to both inspire and polarise, and arguably making the President seem like the political heir to the Orthodox Emperor who first mandated its creation one and a half millennia ago.