On Hagia Sophia

A historical reading and response.

The Hagia Sophia (Mosque) in Istanbul, Turkey. Courtesy of Unsplash.

After Erdogan's frivolous endeavor and the Turkish courts' ruling of reverting the status of Hagia Sophia as a mosque, several politicians, media outlets, and people from secular backgrounds called out the Turkish government for politicizing religion and manipulating at-loss Muslim sentiments for political gain.


Greece mourned Hagia Sophia with church bells and half-mast flags, with various people bringing the objection to Twitter and the social media, claiming that Hagia Sophia has always been a church, and will remain to be a church no matter what Turkey does to it.


Pope Francis said he is pained by the Turkish decision to revert Hagia Sophia, saying “and the sea carries me a little farther away in my thoughts: to Istanbul. I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am very saddened.” The Greek President, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, urged the Pope to put pressure on Turkey and condemned herself the painful act.

This decision by Turkey undermines the foundations of tolerance and deepens the rift between cultures and religions.

Hagia Sophia, formerly a church in the Byzantine era, was turned into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror (محمّد الفاتِح) in the year 1453. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of a New Turkey led by Kamâl Atatürk, Hagia Sophia was then turned into a museum, holding both Islamic and Christian symbols for visitors to admire. On July 10, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the signing of a decree that dictated the reverting of Hagia Sophia to the status of a mosque.


The backlash began, while many Muslims expressed joy and pride in witnessing the revival of an Islamic heritage site, faced with harsh criticism of such a show-off act.

Translation: "Hagia Sophia ... Let the winds be blown in the dome. You are always ours, we are yours ..."

Many Muslims from the Arab world (and surely Turkey) came to the defense of the decision, saying that Hagia Sophia has been a mosque since the 1400s; its status as a church is null and void since it was bought by Mehmet the Conqueror with his own personal money, and turned into a mosque afterward.


But is this true, historically? Not necessarily.


If you read the Hagia Sophia Wikipedia page in English, it is mentioned that "most of the elderly and the infirm/wounded and sick were killed, and the remainder (mainly teenage males and young boys) were chained up and sold into slavery.." However, if you read the Arabic version on Wikipedia, it says that he "assured them of the safety of their lives, their property, and their freedom, and asked them to return home." [My translation].


"أمَّنهم على حياتهم ومُمتلكاتهم وحُرِّيتهم، وطلب منهم العودة إلى بيوتهم."


This polarity of historical factuality creates a challenge for those who are looking for the unbiased truth. What struck me first was the quick inaccurate response from Muslim people on the matter. No books cited and without sensible evidence, they claimed that Mehmet the Conqueror "bought" the church with his own money.


So why not just skim the surface of relevant literature and find out?


  • In his book, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror: the Conqueror of Constantinople, Muhammad Ali al-Sallabi notes: "And when they saw [Mehmet's] empathy and forgiveness, they went out and proclaimed their [conversion to] Islam, and [Mehmet] ordered that the church be turned into a mosque..." (page 111). [My translation].

  • In his book, Mehmet the Conqueror: Hero of Islamic Conquest in East Europe, Dr. Sayyid Ali basically confirms what al-Sallabi has noted. In addition, he refutes the claims of Western historians who try to distort facts with their sentiment, describing the fall of Constantinople in absurd language and inane logic.

  • Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy (1812-1878) describes in his book, History of the Ottoman Turks, atrocious acts done by Mehmet the Conqueror. He notes, referencing the killing of Duke Notaras: "The bloody heads were brought to Mahomet, and placed by his order in a row before him on the banquet table. Many more executions of noble Christians followed on that day, to please the tyrant's savage mood. (page 86).

  • Dr. Ali notes in response to such claims: "It is unimaginable [...] from a Sultan who orders his soldiers to fast before the battle." (page 36). [My translation].

  • Al-Sallabi also notes that historians such as Edward Shepherd Creasy, who "tried in his book History of the Ottoman Turks to [falisfy and] distort the image of the Ottoman conquer of Constantinople" (page 112). [My translation].

If you were to look at the lengthy history of Islamic conquests, you will find numerous sources that confirm the inanity of the western allegations. Some Muslim scholars admit that, while conquests were more brutal than others, this was the norm at that period of time. Compared to the crusades, Islamic conquests are nothing. It is interesting to read a bold claim such as Edward Shepherd Creasy's, which holds no truth to reality.


As Dr. Ali notes, it is unimaginable and improbable that a devout Sultan such as Mehmet II conducts these grim acts of killing and massacres of innocent civilians. Some anti-Muslim historians argue that Islam is in itself a religion of hatred, war, and wicked massacre, but that is fundamentally wrong to say. Those who cannot read Arabic have access to English versions of the Quran. If you look anywhere in the Quran or the Sunnah, you will not find any verse or saying that dictates hatred, approves of innocent killing or promotes violence.

“Fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, and do not exceed the limits,” says the Muslim holy book, the Koran, “surely Allah (God) does not love those who exceed the limits.” (Quran, 2:190).

In fact, such allegations are not only lies but also ludicrous to say. Had Creasy studied the Islamic faith, he would have known that wars in Islam have preset rules and regulations. In short, here's the prophet's will to his army: "ولا تَقْطَعَنَّ شَجَرَةٍ وَلا تَعْقِرَنَّ نَخْلًا ولا تَهْدِمُوا بَيْتًا" - which translates to: "Do not cut a tree, nor a palm, nor destroy a house." He also forbade the killing of women and children.


In a famous decree, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, the first Caliph, told his military commander: “Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for guidance on the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies; do not kill a woman, a child, or an aged man; do not cut down fruitful trees; do not destroy inhabited areas; do not slaughter any of the enemies’ sheep, cow or camel except for food; do not burn date palms, nor inundate them; do not embezzle (e.g. no misappropriation of booty or spoils of war) nor be guilty of cowardliness…You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone." (Source).


To put this in context, we can now say that no, Mehmet II did not "buy" the church of Hagia Sophia. This is not mentioned (and even refuted) in history books. At that time, the code of conduct and the norm was that a conquered city falls within the jurisdiction of the Sultan; he has power over the conquered region, including its edifices and locale. A city peacefully conquered dictates that all buildings and local services are reserved as is, per the respected agreed-upon treaties.


Constantinople was conquered militarily, and so Hagia Sophia fell within the jurisdiction of the Sultan. That being said, it is important to look at history, despite the factual detail differences. Al-Sallabi notes that the occupants of the church "converted to Islam." If we take that under consideration, the conversion of the church to a mosque would make sense. But let's dismiss that, seeing as certain people have a hard time believing this. It is reported that the Church of Hagia Sophia was the center of operations for the Byzantine Empire. It would only make sense for the conqueror to dissimilate the headquarters and nerve center, and establish his rule on it. Had it been anything but a church, it would have met the same fate.

Another good reason for Greece not to react to this event is that Hagia Sophia is located in modern-day Istanbul. It is de facto a property of Turkey, not Greece. By reverting Hagia Sophia to its mosque status, Turkey is exercising its independent right to do what she wills with what falls within its borders.


A Devilish Hypocrisy

If we take a look at history, we can find evidence of mosques destroyed and mosques turned into churches, and (yes) even turned into bars, military inns, and stables.


In Greece, the primary condemner of the Hagia Sophia reversion, the mosques were destroyed, turned into museums, cinemas, and, as noted below, military prisons.

In Athens, where there is no official mosque open for worship, the oldest mosque, Fethiye Mosque, was used for many different purposes such as a military prison and warehouse after the end of the Ottoman administration in the city. Source.

The Greek response to the Turkish decision uncovers the hypocrisy and double standards of the government and the church. While many mosques were destroyed to rubble, and many more turned into churches and other leisure service providers, Greece condemns the reversion of an edifice which has not been a church since 1453. This begs the question, would Greece have done or said anything had Kamâl Atatürk not turned Hagia Sophia into a museum?

Mosques were modified not only in Greece. This occurred in Spain throughout the years, as well as in many other states where the Ottoman Empire ruled. The most recent occurrence was the Babri Masjid in India, which was demolished by Hindu extremists.


In Palestine, Israel recently turned a 13th-century mosque into a nightclub, not even into a place of worship for a (different) faith. No one was heard condemning this act, nor even criticizing or a mere mention. Israel is still operating behind-the-curtains in Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, with continuous Jewish settlers' visits and a suppressive approach to East Jerusalemites and the Muslim Arab locale.


The Middle East: A Divisive Hellhole

While the majority of Muslims in the Middle East concurred and celebrated the Hagia Sophia reversion, many secular voices surfaced, prominently in the Egyptian and Saudi media, condemning Turkey.


Egyptian newspeople (overstatement, really) interviewed loyalist religious figures in an attempt to avert people's delightfulness from the event, claiming that the prayers of those at Hagia Sophia will not be accepted by Allah because it is conducted on "usurped land." They claim that the Hagia Sophia reversion is mere political lust by Erdoğan and should not be seen as an Islamic accomplishment.

The Egyptian media, sadly, is fully controlled and leashed by the government. And since the Egyptian-Turkish relations could not be any worse than they are now, Egyptian media issues full-fledged attacks against Turkey. This, in addition to the fact that Turkey is a friend of Qatar, and the late Egyptian (legitimate) President-elect, Muhammad Morsi.


Unfortunately, they have forgotten that Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi is a ruthless dictator who has only worsened the already dire situation in Egypt after he overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood.

Translation: "They say Erdoğan celebrated Hagia Sophia for political gain. I say look at what al-Sisi did to a mosque in Rabi'ah for political gain."


The Egyptian media is not allowed to criticize their own government, who is failing to control the coronavirus pandemic, with a decrepit economy and a fallible healthcare system.


Others condemned the symbolic sword-sermon in the first official prayer in Hagia Sophia on Friday, saying that this is barbaric and a symbol of terrorism and Islamic extremism.

The head of religious affairs in Turkey, the same khatib (speaker) who ascended the stairs with a sword, explained that this is an ancient tradition.

"Khutbahs (Friday sermons) have been delivered with a sword, without interruption, for 481 years. If Allah permits, we will resume this tradition from now on." Source.

What is confusing is that many cultures have this tradition. The sword is clearly a symbol. The hypocrisy here is evident in that when the sword is gripped by a Muslim figure with a beard and an Islamic attire it is dangerous, "barbaric," and "extremist."

After all, even if this symbol perpetuates the Islamic ambitions of Erdoğan, or marks the comeback of Ottoman-era Turkey, it is within their own right to do that. In the United States, Evangelist figures overtly support Donald Trump and hold his hand tightly. Is Evangelicalism dangerous? I would say definitely, based on this criterium.


There is no question about whether Turkish affairs are Turkey's business alone. The United States can become a theocracy, theoretically speaking, or can even be considered one behind the scenes. The Evangelical agenda of President Trump is more than evident.

A Harbinger of War

As Greece ups the tension with Turkey following the Hagia Sophia reversion, it is foreseen that a war is on the verge of breakout, as Erdoğan is looking forward to voiding the Lausanne Treaty.


The National Interest reports:

War Between Greece and Turkey Is Now a Real Possibility

"Greek and Turkish fighter jets engaged in mock dogfights this week over the Greek island of Kastellorizo, just a mile and a half from the Turkish coast, causing tourists to flee." - The National Interest.

("Liberalism, Socialism, and the coexist morons.")

Copyright © 2021 by Tarek Gara. All Rights Reserved.

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