President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's decision on Hagia Sophia became an item of the agenda in Turkey and around the world, and some criticisms were voiced concerning the said decision at international level. It should not be forgotten, however, that it is for Turkey, as the home country to Hagia Sophia for long years, and its efforts and contributions to protect and preserve it that the said cultural heritage could survive to date.
The speech Erdoğan delivered on July 10, 2020, when he signed the decision on the reconversion of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, is a kind of manifesto. His speech features answers to all criticisms directed by the international public against the decision in question. His speech is also the manifestation that Hagia Sophia, as the world heritage of mankind as a whole, will be owned and embraced most strongly and protected and preserved meticulously.
My Dear Nation,
I extend to you my most heartfelt greetings and affection. The Council of State today annulled the 1934 Cabinet Decree, which had enabled the Hagia Sophia’s conversion from a mosque into a museum. Based on that ruling, we have issued a presidential decree to facilitate the reopening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque. Thus, after 86 years, the Hagia Sophia will be able to start serving as a mosque once again, as stated in the foundation charter of Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan. I wish this decision to be auspicious to our nation, the ummah, and all of humanity. Our Ministry of Culture and Tourism has immediately begun to work on the administrative and technical preparations, while our Presidency of Religious Affairs on religious aspects of the matter.
With the termination of its status as a museum, entrance to the Hagia Sophia will be free of charge. Like all our mosques, the doors of the Hagia Sophia will be wide open to all: locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims. Under its new status, the Hagia Sophia, a common heritage of humanity, will continue to embrace everyone in a more sincere and original manner. By completing the preparations quickly, we plan to open the Hagia Sophia to worship on Friday, July 24, 2020, with the Friday prayer service. This decision will possibly lead to various controversies at home and abroad. I call on everyone to respect the decision that our country’s judicial and executive bodies have made regarding the Hagia Sophia. Surely, we will welcome all kinds of views voiced on this matter in the international arena. However, to what purpose Hagia Sophia will be utilized is a matter of Turkey’s sovereign rights. Opening Hagia Sophia for worship following a new regulation is merely an exercise of our country’s sovereign rights. The right to convert Hagia Sophia into a mosque in line with its foundation charter is the same as the flag of the Republic of Turkey, its capital, its adhan, its language, its borders, and its 81 provinces. In this regard, we view any approach and expression, which goes beyond the voicing of opinions, as a violation of our independence. Just as we as Turkey do not interfere in decisions on places of worship in other countries, we expect the same understanding about us protecting our historical and legal rights. Moreover, this right dates back exactly 567 years ago, not just 50 or 100 years. If today a faith-oriented discussion is to be held, the topic of that discussion should be not Hagia Sophia, but Islamophobia and xenophobia increasing with each passing day in all parts of the world. Turkey’s decision is solely related to its own domestic laws and historical rights. I express my gratitude to all political parties and leaders, non-governmental organizations, and every individual of our nation who stand behind this decision.
My dear nation
The conquest of Istanbul and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a Mosque are among the most glorious chapters in history, particularly Turkish history. On May 29, 1453, Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan entered the city after a long siege and headed directly to the Hagia Sophia. As the Byzantines awaited their fate, fearful and curious, inside the Hagia Sophia, Fatih entered the Hagia Sophia, giving assurances to the people regarding their lives and freedoms. The Conqueror of Istanbul, as a symbol of the conquest, hoisted his flag at the mihrab in the middle of the Hagia Sophia, shot an arrow towards the dome, and recited the first adhan. Thus, he registered his conquest. Then, in a suitable corner of the Hagia Sophia, he performed two rak'ahs of prayer out of gratitude. With this move, he demonstrated that he had converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Sultan Mehmed carefully examined this great place of worship, Istanbul’s pearl, from its floor to its roof. According to historians, Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan, who climbed to the dome of the Hagia Sophia, recited the following famous Farsi poem upon encountering the building and its surroundings in ruin:
“PERDEDÂRİ MÎKONED BER KASR-İ KAYSER ANKEBUT BÛM NOVBET MÎZENED DER TAREM-İ EFRÂSİYÂB” Or, in English: “A SPIDER SPINS ITS WEB IN THE PALACE OF THE CAESARS, AN OWL HOOTS IN THE TOWERS OF AFRASIAB”
Yes… Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan had taken over such a devastated, worn-out, and miserable Istanbul and Hagia Sophia. Essentially, the Hagia Sophia, which Fatih took over, had been built for the third time, since the first two churches, which stood on the same spot, were burned and destroyed during the times of turmoil. After the conquest, with three days of hard work, the Hagia Sophia was prepared for worship – for the first Friday prayer. Fatih, who entered the mosque with leading statesmen and soldiers, was welcomed with takbirs and salawats that resonated from the domes. Fatih then performed the sermon of the first Friday prayer in the Hagia Sophia, and his mentor, Akshamsaddin, led the prayer services. Fatih also enabled the development of the Orthodox Church, which had been excluded by other Christian sects, by bringing them under his auspices. The domes and walls of this great place of worship have resonated with adhan, salats, takbirs, salawats, hatims, and mawlids for 481 years since then. Istanbul, which had been devastated by earthquakes, fires, looting, and neglect for centuries, was once again brought back on its feet with the conquest. The symbol of this process was the Hagia Sophia. After Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan, every sultan strived to make Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia even more beautiful. The Hagia Sophia, which was designated as the Great Mosque of the city, has been transformed into a complex, with buildings that were added in time and served believers for centuries. In almost every century that followed, the Hagia Sophia went through major repairs to further beautify it with additions and is regarded as our nation’s precious gem. So much so that we did not even attempt to change its original name, which means the "Wisdom of God." This temple, which was about to be destroyed under the collapse of an old state, was not only transformed into a mosque by our ancestors, but it was also exalted and revived. Therefore, for centuries, the Hagia Sophia has had a special place in the hearts of all the members of this nation. As for ourselves, we have also had a love of Hagia Sophia in our hearts since we were young. We believe that we have provided an important service to our nation by reopening this mosque, in accordance with its foundation charter and without compromising its cultural heritage identity.
My dear nation…
While the conquest was the minor struggle, the development, construction, and charity activities of the Hagia Sophia were the greater struggles. As the Hagia Sophia was being built during the Eastern Roman period, materials were transported from across the empire—from Egypt to Izmir and from Syria to Balıkesir. Fatih and the sultans who came after brought the craftsmen from all over Anatolia and Rumelia to Istanbul and rebuilt both the Hagia Sophia and the city. In doing so, they made the most of the legacy they had taken over. For example, Fatih preserved the fixed mosaics in the Hagia Sophia and only removed movable statues from the building. Mosaics that remained in place for centuries were covered gradually, during subsequent repairs, thereby protecting them from external influences and ensuring that they survived until the present day.
Viewing the members of different beliefs with tolerance is fundamentally an attitude essential to our religion. Our Prophet, while notifying divine orders, did not interfere with communities from other religions that did not aggress Muslims. When the caliph Omar took Jerusalem, he protected the Christians and Jews in the city with their rights and places of worship. Like all the states established by our ancestors, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire followed the same path. What Fatih and his followers did in Istanbul consisted of following this ancient tradition. Sinan the Architect, one of the most important figures in our civilization’s history, is one of the top contributors to the Hagia Sophia. In 481 years, the Hagia Sophia became what it is today, with its altar, pulpit, minarets, sultan's throne, plates, embroideries, chandeliers, carpets, fountain, and all other elements. With the most crowded congregations of Istanbul, that have gathered through history, the Hagia Sophia has been a place of truly spectacular views that have been experienced during exceptional days such as Tarawih prayer, Laylat al-Qadr, and Eid. Therefore, the Turkish Nation's right to the Hagia Sophia is no less than the first builders of this work, approximately 1,500 years ago. On the contrary, because of its contributions and strong ownership, our nation has more rights over the Hagia Sophia, which is considered as one of the most important works of human heritage or human history today. With the conquest, Istanbul became a city where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in peace and tranquillity. History is the witness of the great struggles we made to ensure that prosperity, trust, peace, and tolerance prevailed everywhere we conquered. Today, besides our mosques in every corner of our country, there are thousands of historical shrines of every faith. In addition, churches and synagogues operate wherever there are congregations. There are currently 435 churches and synagogues open for worship in our country. This situation, which cannot be encountered in other geographies, is the manifestation of our understanding which sees differences as richness. However, as a nation, we have not been able to avoid examples of the exact opposite even in our recent history. In Eastern Europe and the Balkan geography, where the Ottomans had to withdraw, only a few of the works built by our ancestors for centuries are still standing. Based on the phrase that “a negative example cannot set a precedent,” we do not take any of these bad examples into consideration, and we are resolutely maintaining the stance of our own civilization, which is based on construction and revival.
My dear nation…
The debate over the Hagia Sophia, which is once again in the spotlight today due to the decision to reopen it to worship, is nearly a century old. During the time when Anatolia and Istanbul were under occupation, there were discussions about turning the Hagia Sophia into a church. As the first step of this intention, fully equipped occupant troops arrived at the doors of the Hagia Sophia. The French commander of the troops informed the Ottoman officer assigned to the Hagia Sophia that they would settle there and that Turkish soldiers must leave the mosque. Major Tevfik Bey, who defended the Hagia Sophia with his soldiers, gave them the following answer:
“YOU CANNOT AND WILL NOT ENTER HERE. BECAUSE THIS IS OUR PLACE OF WORSHIP. IF YOU ARE GOING TO ATTEMPT TO ENTER BY FORCE, OUR FIRST RESPONSE WILL BE WITH HEAVY MACHINE GUNS, AND THEN THE DEMOLITION CHARGES THAT WERE PLACED IN THE FOUR CORNERS OF THE MOSQUE. IF YOU CAN AFFORD THE COLLAPSE OF THE HAGIA SOPHIA ONTO YOUR HEADS, YOU CAN TRY TO ENTER."
He thus crushed the invaders’ hopes of taking the Hagia Sophia. Foreigners maintained an interest in the Hagia Sophia in the following years, hiding behind various excuses such as repairing the mosaics. Meanwhile, the single-party era government closed the Hagia Sophia to worship in line with a new decree that required mosques to be at least 500 meters apart from one another. Later, on February 1, 1935, the Hagia Sophia was instated as a museum and opened to visitors. “During the years when it was closed to worship, Hagia Sophia, the heirloom of our ancestors, was exposed to a tremendous maltreatment historically.” The Hagia Sophia Madrasah, the first Ottoman university in Istanbul built by Fatih adjacent to the mosque, was destroyed without reason. Rare carpets laid on the floor of the Hagia Sophia were cut and distributed here and there. Antique chandeliers were taken to the foundry to be melted. Masterpiece plates that were still in place could not be moved out through the door because they are very large and were therefore moved to the warehouse. These plates were later hung on their respective spots on the wall during the Democrat Party period. The destruction suffered by Hagia Sophia is not limited to these. Those who wanted nothing left of the time when the Hagia Sophia was a mosque would even have demolished its minarets. As a matter of fact, the minaret of Little Hagia Sophia, which was converted into a mosque during the reign of Sultan Bayezid II, was destroyed overnight without any legal basis. Historian, journalist, and musician İbrahim Hakkı Konyalı, who saw that the time had come for the Hagia Sophia, immediately wrote and published a report. They then decided not to tear down the minarets since late Konyalı said in his report "These minarets are the support of the dome, if they are taken down, the Hagia Sophia will collapse.” In the same period, similar disasters happened to many mosques, madrasahs, and edict relics. Actually, this decision taken alone or during the single-party period was not only betraying the history but was also against the law. Because the Hagia Sophia is neither the property of the state nor any institution, but a property of a foundation. When Fatih conquered Istanbul, he also earned the title of the Roman Emperor and therefore had all the rights of ownership over the property of the Byzantine dynasty. According to this law, the ownership of Hagia Sophia was given to Fatih and the foundation established by him. During the Republican period, an official copy of this deed was prepared in the new Latin letters and issued to officially register its legal status. If Fatih did not hold the deed for the Hagia Sophia, he would not have the right to endow it legally. In one of the pages of his foundation charter, which is hundreds of pages long, dated June 1, 1453 and including the Hagia Sophia, Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan said:
“HE WHO CHANGES MY FOUNDATION CHARTER, WHICH CONVERTS THIS HAGIA SOPHIA INTO A MOSQUE, ATTEMPS TO ALTER, ANNUL OR AMEND ONE OF ITS ARTICLES. IF HE MEANS TO ABOLISH THE FOUNDATION CHARTER OF THE HAGIA SOPHIA MOSQUE WITH A PECCABLE OR FLAGRANT GLOSS OR DECEIT… CHANGES THE ORIGINAL, CHALLENGES ITS PROVISIONS AND GUIDES AND HELPS THOSE WHO DO IT… UNLAWFULLY USES IT, TERMINATES ITS STATUS AS A MOSQUE AND ARRANGES FORGED DOCUMENTS AND REQUESTS TRUSTEE RIGHTS... OR RECORDS IT IN HIS OWN INVALID ACCOUNT BOOK OR FALSELY TRANFERS IT TO HIS OWN ACCOUNT... I EXPRESS BEFORE YOU, THAT HE HAS COMMITTED THE BIGGEST HARAM AND SIN. THE ETERNAL CURSE OF ALLAH, THE PROPHET, THE ANGELS, ALL THE RULERS AND EVEN ALL MUSLIMS SHALL BE ON THOSE WHO CHANGES THIS FOUNDATION CHARTER; ... LET THEIR TORMENTS NOT BE ALLEVIATED, AND THEIR FACES NOT LOOKED AT ON THE DAY OF JUDGEMENT. ANYONE WHO STILL CONTINUES WITH THIS CHANGE AFTER HEARING THESE, THE SIN SHALL BE UPON TO THE ONE WHO CHANGES IT. ALLAH'S PUNISHMENT IS UPON THEM. ALLAH IS ALL-HEARING, ALL-KNOWING.”
Yes… The decision taken today has allowed us to get rid of the heavy curse that Fatih has put forth over his foundation. Then again, the same mentality, let alone eliminating Hagia Sophia's sorrow, still offers to turn the Sultan Ahmet, Istanbul's most famous mosque, into a museum. In the past, this mentality had thought of utilizing the Sultan Ahmet Mosque as a picture gallery, Yıldız Palace as a casino, and the Hagia Sophia as a jazz club, of which some have already been done. As in every period, this perspective today is a manifestation of an outdated understanding under the guise of modernity. It is the product of the same logic to demand the Vatican be converted into a museum and be closed to worship and to insist that the Hagia Sophia remains as a museum. The next step would be the desire of turning the Kaaba, the oldest temple of worship of humanity, and the ancient temple of Masjid al-Aqsa into a museum. I say may Allah protect our country and humanity forever from this mentality. I say may Allah not test this nation again with those who are hostile to their values.
My dear nation…
There are some artefacts that are symbols of nations and states. One of these symbols is the Hagia Sophia. In an article he wrote in 1922, Yahya Kemal said:
“THIS STATE HAS TWO SPIRITUAL FOUNDATIONS: THE ADHAN THAT FATIH RECITED FROM THE HAGIA SOPHIA’S MINARET, AND STILL RESONATES… THE QUR'AN THAT SELIM RECITED BEFORE THE PROPHET’S CLOAK, AND STILL RESONATES…”
Again, in the words of Yahya Kemal, the meaning of the Hagia Sophia for our nation is as follows:
“ONCE UPON A TIME, JUDGING BY YOUR GEOMETRY, I THOUGHT YOU WERE ONLY A MONUMENT; NOW, WHILE LOOKING AT THIS NATION UNDER YOUR DOME, I FEEL LIKE I HAVE ENTERED THE ENCHANTING CLIMATE OF THE ANCESTORS I HAVE BEEN DREAMING AND MISSING FOR YEARS”
Unfortunately, this temple, which the poet described as “the enchanting climate of the ancestors”, was deprived of the voice of adhan and the recitation of the Holy Qur'an for a long time. Although the worshipping part of the Hagia Sophia allocated for the Sultan was first opened to worship in 1980 and again in 1991, due to the main structure it had remained destitute. Almost all of our intellectual and artistic people have expressed the destitute of the Hagia Sophia in their writings and speeches. The late Necip Fazıl Kısakürek reveals his belief in this matter by saying “those who doubt whether Turks will remain in this country also doubt whether the Hagia Sophia will be open. One of his conferences was about this matter when we were young. Today, we are answering the call of the master, "The Hagia Sophia should be opened, it should be opened along with the blocked fortune of Turks." The poem of Nazım Hikmet on the conquest of Istanbul and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is also very stunning:
“THIS IS THE MOST HONORABLE DAY THAT ISLAM HAS BEEN LOOKING FORWARD TO
GREEK CONSTANTINOPLE HAS BECOME TURKISH ISTANBUL
THE LEADER OF AN ARMY AGAINST THE WORLD
THE SULTAN OF THE TURKS, LIKE A SKY GETS SPLIT
ON THE GRAY HORSE FROM EDIRNEKAPI
HE CONQUERED ISTANBUL IN EIGHT WEEKS AND THREE DAYS
WHAT A HAPPY, BLESSED SERVANT OF ALLAH.
THE SULTAN WHO CONQUERED THE BEAUTIFUL CITY ALLAH ACCEPTED HIS BIGGEST PRAYER
AND ENABLED HIM TO PERFORM AFTERNOON PRAYER IN HAGIA SOPHIA.”
Another historian and poet Nihal Atsız was asked, "If you were born again, what would you like to be?" He says "I would like to be an imam in Hagia Sophia". When our world-renowned historian Halil İnalcık said, “The west never forgot the conquest of Istanbul and Hagia Sophia,” he was actually trying to explain to us that this was a supra-political issue. As one of the leading figures of our literature, Peyami Safa said, “Making Hagia Sophia a museum has not eliminated the ambitions of Christianity on Istanbul but on the contrary encouraged, provoked and excited them.” An article titled Hagia Sophia, which resulted in its author, Osman Yüksel Serdengeçti, facing the death penalty ended with the following:
O MAGNIFICENT TEMPLE...
DO NOT WORRY, THE GRANDCHILDREN OF FATIH WILL OVERTHROW ALL THE IDOLS AND CONVERT YOU INTO A MOSQUE. THEY WILL PERFORM ABLUTION WITH THEIR TEARS AND PROSTRATE. TAHLILS AND TAKBIRS WILL REPLENISH YOUR EMPTY DOMES AND THERE THERE WILL BE A SECOND CONQUEST. THE BARDS WILL WRITE THE EPIC OF THIS, AND THE ADHAN WILL DECLARE THAT. THE TAKBIRS RISING FROM THE SILENT AND ORPHANED MINARETS WILL BE ECHOED IN THE SKIES. YOUR MINARET BALCONS WILL LIGHT UP IN HONOR OF ALLAH AND HIS PROPHET MOHAMMED. THE WHOLE WORLD WILL THINK THAT FATİH HAS RESURRECTED. THIS WILL BE HAGIA SOPHIA, THIS WILL BE. A SECOND CONQUEST, THE NEW RESURRECTION… THIS IS DEFINITELY… THESE DAYS ARE CLOSE… MAYBE TOMORROW, MAYBE SOONER THAN TOMORROW…"
Praise be it, we've reached the said tomorrows.
One of the most prominent poems about the grief of Hagia Sophia belongs to Arif Nihat Asya:
“OH GREAT TEMPLE, WHY ARE YOU COVERED WITH SORROW LIKE THIS? TELL US ABOUT THE AGE OF FATIH EVEN A LITTLE BIT! WE WERE LINED UP FIVE TIMES A DAY UNDER YOUR CALMING DOME WITH YOUR ADHANS, YOU HAD AN INVITATION YESTERDAY. O MY TEMPLE, LET THEM BE ASHAMED THOSE WHO CLOSE AND NOT OPEN YOU”
This is the kind of embarrassment from which Turkey saved itself today. Today, Hagia Sophia is having another resurrection, many of which it has witnessed since its construction.
Seventy years after the adhan’s return to its original version, the reinstatement of Sultan Mehmed’s trust, the Hagia Sophia, as a mosque is an overdue recovery.
It is the strongest answer ever given to the brutal attacks against our symbols and values across the Islamic world.
Turkey, with all steps taken in recent years, has demonstrated that it is the subject, rather than the object of time and space.
With its historic struggle, our nation builds a bridge between the past and the future, embracing all of humanity, for the sake of the bright future of the civilization that we represent.
Inshallah, we will continue to walk on this sacred path without pause nor hesitation, without giving up, through perseverance, sacrifice, and determination, until we reach our ultimate destination.
Once again, I hope that the court ruling and the presidential decree, which facilitated the Hagia Sophia’s reinstatement as a mosque, will be auspicious.
I would like to stress once again that we will open the Hagia Sophia to worship, as a mosque, whilst preserving its qualities as part of humanity’s shared cultural heritage.
I extend my love and respect to you all.
I wish you the best of health.