We had grown up reading about the history and architectural wonders of Turkey. It has bridged Europe and Asia—its architecture, food, music and arts has drawn from and given to both in equal measure. India’s links with Turkey go back centuries. There is much in our food, attire, language and architecture that has come to us from or through Turkey. The most remarkable of these are the dome and the true arch, first used in India in the mausoleum of Ghiyas-ud-Din Balban in 1287.
So when we landed in Istanbul, the Qustuntunia of our childhood, these thoughts kept us agog with excitement. But nothing, nothing at all could prepare us for the magic of Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, as it is popularly called. The oldest dome that we had seen until then was the Alai Darwaza, built in the 14th century.
Commissioned by the Roman emperor Justinian I and completed in 537 CE, Ayasofya was a Greek Orthodox cathedral for the next 667 years. Rampaging crusaders converted it into a Roman Catholic cathedral in 1204. But they did not last too long—57 years later the Byzantines recaptured Istanbul and Ayasofya became a Greek Orthodox cathedral once again.
The troubles of the cathedral weren’t over yet. The Ottomans seized Istanbul in 1453 and turned it into a mosque. It remained so for the next 482 years. Kemal Ataturk, the builder of modern Turkey, put a stop to prayers there and converted it into a museum in 1935. It was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985.
Our affable guide rattled all this off even as we were trying to capture in our cameras the many friezes fashioned from multi-coloured tiles. As restorers peeled off the layers of paint lavished on the structure when it was was a mosque, the friezes were slowly being revealed.
Suddenly, we realised that the narrative of our guide carried no anger, no rancour. She wasn’t being judgemental and she wasn’t apportioning blame. She told us about the history of the place and the veneration in which Ayasofya was held not only by the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and Muslims, but also by those who viewed it as precious heritage spanning more than 14 centuries. Come to think of it, this structure is older than Islam. Walking through Ayasofya, we were struck by the thought that there must be other buildings that have the same kind of history. Two such structures come to mind immediately: the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, run over during the Crusades and later re-established as a mosque. The other is Cordoba mosque, with opposing narratives about its origins, but now known as the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba).
We have temples, churches, mosques, fire temples and synagogues. Before all of these, there were sites venerated by animists and followers of pagan practices that conquerors took over and turned into sites of veneration in medieval times. And yet, rarely have we preserved these clashing memories of occupation and reassignments, while also protecting the structures that were sites of medieval contestations.
The 1935 decision to turn Ayasofya into a museum aimed to preserve and highlight the contribution of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholics and Muslims to this building and to showcase how succeeding occupiers did not destroy the pre-existing imagery and icons. All of it was systematically restored to foreground the cultural diversity that has informed the making of modern Turkey. The narrative of the guides in Istanbul, Ephesus, Izmir, Kusadasi and other places we visited came as a breath of fresh air. What had happened was history—it did not generate hate and animosity against the descendants of those who were responsible for excesses. This, we thought, was how one should engage with one’s past—own it as the past, don’t let it impinge on your present and don’t let it inform your future.
The recent decision by the Turkish judiciary and the Erdogan administration to rescind the 1935 decision and open a designated part of the mosque for the five daily prayers of Muslims will put a stop to all that. The Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics will protest. UNESCO has already issued a strong objection and may withdraw the World Heritage tag. The official announcement stated that except for the designated prayer area, the rest of the structure would be open for all visitors and entry would be free, as in other historical mosques. Sounds like a good deal, except that the income from the sale of tickets, a whopping $60 million in 2019, will disappear.
But that is not the only loss Turkey is going to suffer. This decision is a clear indication that Turkey is deliberately stepping away from the modernist and secular path. We are facing the consequences of our retreat. Now, Turkey has chosen the same perilous path.
Sohail Hashmi is a historian and filmmaker