On Secularism and the Hagia Sophia

Throughout the West today, statues are falling (as they are prone to do) and people are debating the best way to memorialize—or critique—the past, specifically as it concerns men and women whose legacies are bound up with the devastating histories of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism, and white supremacy. These histories extend over the past 500 years, an enormous period of time (especially to an American) that coincides with the history of what we call modernity. Whether you begin with Copernicus or Columbus or Luther, our sense of what it means to be “modern,” in fact our sense of what it means to be “human” in a secular sense, has evolved alongside some pretty pernicious systems.

Now consider this long timeline alongside the history of the Hagia Sophia. The famous building was constructed in A.D. 537 following the Nika riots, a period that would make our own time look like an era of good feelings. Emperor Justinian dedicated the new church to “the Wisdom of God,” giving the cathedral its Greek name. According to the book of Proverbs, Wisdom was God’s first creation. According to Christian theology, God’s Wisdom is an expression of the Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity, who became incarnate in the person of Jesus. For roughly a century, the Hagia Sophia was the largest building on earth. For nearly an entire millennium, it was a Christian cathedral, the largest in the world. During most of that period, the Hagia Sophia was a Byzantine basilica and arguably the most important site in Eastern Christianity: it was the seat of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, a function that was interrupted for nearly 60 years in the thirteenth century when the Fourth Crusaders converted it into a Roman Catholic cathedral. Then, for another half millennium, the Hagia Sophia served as an Ottoman mosque. With the rise of Atatürk and modern Turkey, it was legally designated as a “monument museum,” a secular space where neither Christians nor Muslims could worship. In 1985, it became part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site. For the Christians and Muslims of Anatolia and Greece, its status has been contested since Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453, four decades before Columbus sailed to the New World.

Let’s quickly break down the numbers: the Hagia Sophia was a cathedral for 916 years. It was a mosque for 482 years. It has been a museum for 85 years. These are enormous periods of time, much longer than the lives of most nations and even many cultures. This history raises a politically and religiously complicated question: to whom does the Hagia Sophia belong?

The Empress Zoe mosaic in the Hagia Sophia

This is not a purely academic question. President Erdoğan of Turkey, who has made a habit of allowing public Muslim prayers and readings from the Qu’ran in the Hagia Sophia, announced earlier this year that he would reconvert the monument museum into a mosque. Turkey’s highest court is scheduled to decide the matter on July 2. Numerous Islamic groups have petitioned for the change; numerous Orthodox groups, and the nation of Greece, have petitioned against it. As the anti-Erdoğan newspaper Ahval recently reported, Anthony J. Limberakis, who is the National Commander of the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, an archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has maintained that the site should remain a museum. The head of the Christian Armenian community in Turkey has suggested that the site be shared as a place of worship for both Christians and Muslims. The Roman Catholic bishops’ conference of Turkey have said that, despite the site’s UNESCO status, the matter should be decided by Turkey. Few prominent Christians or Christian organizations have argued that the Hagia Sophia should be reconverted to a church.

The Ahval article, cited above, concludes as follows:

For some, frequent arguments over subjects such as the names of the city or of the future uses of the Hagia Sophia are tiresome and chauvinistic expressions of rival nationalisms – both Turkish and Greek. 

Nicholas Danforth, senior visiting Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, wrote in Apollo Magazine in 2019 that the Hagia Sophia in particular continues to serve as a vehicle for competing civilisational chauvinisms.

I am personally agnostic on the fate of the Hagia Sophia. I would welcome the opportunity to worship there, and so the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople’s proposal seems most reasonable (and polite) to me. Let’s share! But in general, my preoccupations and politics are much closer to Iowa than to Istanbul, and I try to refrain from taking strong stances on the affairs of other countries and cultures, especially when those affairs are not matters of life and death.

Nevertheless, the potential conversion of the Hagia Sophia back into a mosque has preoccupied members of various right-wing Orthodox groups that I follow on social media. Members and administrators of these groups predict that Erdoğan will unleash a torrent of spiritual (and even physical) warfare should he make good on his desire to reconvert the site to a mosque. Some predict that Russia will respond, that Christians will revolt, that demons will become…uh, more demonic should the Muslim faithful worship once again in Orthodox Christianity’s most important cathedral. I am not exaggerating, only paraphrasing; I don’t want to share direct quotes from private Facebook groups, but I’m not making this content up. For some, the spiritual health of the planet will be determined by whether or not the site functions as a mosque. (Members of these groups make a habit of sharing photos of the Hagia Sophia with its four distinctive minarets cropped out.)

I believe these concerns about the fate of the Hagia Sophia are rooted more in anti-Muslim sentiment than in a genuine desire to reconvert the site to its original purpose as a church (although triumphalist desires to repopulate Anatolia with Christians and once again fly the banners of old Constantinople over Istanbul often coincide with anti-Muslim sentiment—the two are hardly mutually exclusive). Let me be clear: I do not deny that Christians are persecuted, or that the status of the Ecumenical Patriarch is compromised, in modern Turkey. However, I believe it’s significant that few who object to the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque also object to the site’s current status as a monument museum. They tend to frame the battle over the site as two-sided: Christians vs. Muslims. In reality, however, neither Christians nor Muslims have control of the site. There is another, third party in the battle over the Hagia Sophia: secularists and secular institutions. The fact that would-be Byzantines omit this side of the struggle—or that they treat the site’s secular status as a safe, neutral alternative to it becoming a mosque—is telling. Most of them would rather let nobody worship there than return the Hagia Sophia to its 482-year function as a mosque. But by preferring that nobody to worship there, the Byzantine Christians are actually picking a side: secularism.

The Islamist side of the struggle over the Hagia Sophia has no illusions about this. I would argue that, by returning the site to its function as a mosque, Erdoğan is picking a fight with the secular West, not the Christian East. And after all, Eastern Christians are appealing to secular authorities and secular institutions—UNESCO, for instance—in their petitions to preserve the site’s status as a museum monument. It is as if, in the battle between secularism and Christianity, secularism as won in the minds of most Christians. Museums are, after all, viewed by most people as open, public, neutral spaces.

But secularism is never neutral. Secular spaces are ideologically embedded with their own, post-religious values. When Atatürk’s government designated the Hagia Sophia a museum, they were making a very specific argument about the role of religion in general, and Islam in particular, in Turkish life. Erdoğan is making the opposing argument. Where should Christians stand in this argument? For those on the Orthodox right, the answer (always) seems to be, “Against the Muslims!” I wouldn’t be so sure this is the best solution. In a letter to President Donald Trump, quoted in the Ahval article, Limberakis stated that the Hagia Sophia “rightly became a museum in 1935, a monument of the human spirit and a living symbol of respect for all faiths.” Why is this “rightly” the case? The presupposition is that Erdoğan, Limberakis, and Trump all should appeal to a higher set of values, one above either Christianity or Islam: the secular commitment to “the human spirit” and “respect for all faiths.”

Should Christians be so committed to secularism? This, to me, is the more pressing question behind the debate over the Hagia Sophia’s status. And in the question of whether or not the Hagia Sophia should remain a secular space, both Christians and Muslims have skin in the game. I believe that liberal, democratic, secular governments have proved themselves a fine scaffolding within which a more just and secure society can be built—both inside and outside the West. I like to believe that whether I were Turkish or French or Japanese, I would prefer a liberal, democratic, secular government. But that doesn’t mean every facet of society should be liberal, democratic, or secular. The sacred is a very real and legitimate part of human life. For 1,400 years, the Hagia Sophia was a sacred space. I believe it should become a sacred space again. The best solution (and the most likely to be ignored) was proposed by Constantinople’s Armenian Patriarch: let the site serve as both a church and a mosque.

What would such a compromise look like? I don’t know. But I hope that, ultimately, it wouldn’t have to look like a compromise. Will the Hagia Sophia ever again serve as a fully-functioning cathedral? Probably not. But it could function as a kind of church and also function as a kind of mosque, a holy site for Christians and Muslims alike, a place beyond the blandness and (illusory) neutrality of secularism.

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