Outrage over the reconversion of the building to a mosque stems from the historical hurt that conservative Christians, masquerading as clones of liberalism, still feel
Adil Rashid Bhatt
The complicated history of Hagia Sophia has seen it changing hands many a time. The latest change in its status is from a museum to a mosque, a change that has caused much controversy around the world. Constantinus, after the death of his predecessor “Constantine”, felt the need for Byzantine to posses its own pantheon. Hagia Sophia was chosen. Hagia Sophia translates to Sophia of God, or Holy Wisdom. The monument was first constructed as Megale Ekklesia, which means the Grand Church, in 360 AD. It had a wooden roof that was cauterised by a fire in 404 AD. A second blaze engulfed it in 414 AD. It was then that a firm believer of orthodoxy, Theodisius-II, commissioned construction/renovation of another church in 415 AD. The church was once again burned down in riots (after a revolt) under the reign of Justinian.
New construction was commissioned on the orders of Emperor Justinian and completed in five years in 537AD. For this service he is remembered as the founder of Hagia Sophia. Its construction entailed plunder of old pagan idols and edifices, which corroborated prohibition of worship of images and idols during the iconoclast period.
That is why during the reign of Leo-III most of the mosaics or motifs depicting a human image were either destroyed or covered. This fashion inspired by puritanical ideology continued until the reign of Theopillis, but soon after his death his wife renovated and reinstalled icons in the churches.
But there was something else in the destiny of Hagia Sophia, as in 1204 AD, Constantinople fell into hands of crusaders led by the Doge of Venice Enrico Dandolo (notorious for being brutal) who ravaged and looted this architectural marvel. Not for nothing the Byzantines after taking the city again sacked his tomb in Hagia Sophia.
With the rise in Ottoman power, the city came under their (Osmani) rule on 29th of May,1453 AD, under the able leadership of young Sultan Muhammed-II, who converted the church into a mosque at once. The corollary of this action was reconstruction (a mimbar, a mehrab, a madarasa, and a wooden minaret were added) and also restoration in the new Aya Sophia, which preserved many mosaics. But the bell of the church tower and the big cross on the dome were removed. Selim-II rebuilt the first wooden minaret commissioned by Sultan Muhammad-II, the conqueror of Constantinople. Another minaret, of brick stone, was commissioned by Sultan Bayezid-II on the southeast side of the mosque minaret. Sultan Selim-II and Sultan Murad-III commissioned construction of the other two minarets by hiring the Grand Architect “Sinan”. During this time, considering sensitivity of Muslim faith, almost all mosaics were concealed with plaster or whitewash.
In 1923, after the collapse of the once mighty Ottoman Empire, the Turkish republic came into being under the statesman Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey. Under foreign pressure, Ataturk restored the mosaics in Hagia Sophia in 1932 AD, and to vindicate his secular credentials converted it into a museum in 1935 AD.
The new controversy
The Christians who are upset or angry at the restoration of Aya Sophia’s medieval status of a mosque are so only because it has been granted status of a Muslim place of worship, and not a Christian one. If it were converted into a Christian place of worship, no eyebrows would have been raised, nor a sigh heard. On the contrary, all apologists, intellectuals of convenience, jacks of all trades would have lavished choicest praises on the Turkish nation for being forbearing and magnanimous. The Turkish president would be paraded as an idol of liberalism and the epitome of humanity. But is not liberalism about freedom of religion. Christians will still be freely allowed to enter the bewitching building. How does it matter to liberals whether the structure is frozen in status quo or apart from being freely open to the public of all hues is also used as a Muslim house of worship, like it used to be?
The anxiety that these orthodox liberals and pseudo Muslim sympathisers are exhibiting and spreading reinforces the belief that they are agents of oppressors. Now Muslims, too, have joined the bandwagon of those claiming to save secularism of Islam. These people will always side with oppressors and not speak a word to them against the rampant oppression that they religiously practice upon the oppressed and dispossessed. Only a few condescending and conciliatory words, nothing more they do or can do or will do. Sometimes they act as safety valves for oppressors, averting a ballistic backlash from the oppressed. These pseudo liberals forget the atrocities of the “civilised” westerners. Greece called reconversion of Aya Sophia as a provocation to the civilised world, notwithstanding her illegal occupation of the Fethiye Mosque built by Sultan Muhammed-II in 1458. May we ask which civilisation debars construction of a single mosque in Athens with more than three lakh Muslim population? May we ask what civilisation did they bring to the Middle East apart from wholesale destruction? May we ask what was the carpet bombing of Iraq about, and in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria (albeit by orthodox Russia)? Keep your civilisation preserved for posterity but spare us from it! This intolerance stems from the historical hurt that these conservative Christians, masquerading as clones of liberalism, still feel. Many attempts have been made in recent past to correct this hurt. In fact, crusades in the name of war on terror wreaked havoc in Muslim lands, killed and maimed millions, destroyed habitations and thousands of mosques, hospitals, schools. Their historical hurt can be assuaged only if the historic marvel is surrendered and transformed into a functional church, paving the way for many more erstwhile pagan structures to be reconverted so. This, notwithstanding the fact that many mosques are under possession of Catholics and Orthodox Christians in Spain, Russia, and eastern Europe. More so, hundreds of masjids have been completely annihilated by relentless bombings in Afghanistan and Iraq by American and allied forces that are majority Christian countries. What is the compensation for that?
How does it affect a common Christian who doesn’t even attend weekly religious congregation in a church, or who blithely sells age-old churches in England (even in countryside) to Muslims and Hindus that later convert them into mosques and idol houses of worship, respectively. Let me tell you: it only bruises a fundamentalist Christian missionary who can’t see a landmark architecture/marvel (though renovated and embellished), constructed by a Christian King, turn into a mosque. The building ceased to be a church on 29 May 1453 AD, and since then was used as a mosque until 1934. Christians never felt the need earlier to restore, recover, or renovate it. Why this sudden adrenaline rush now?
Aya Sophia will remain freely accessible to all irrespective of religion or race. Rare historic motifs have been preserved and will not be removed or altered. Orthodox Christians can come and feel spiritually connected there. But yes, sovereignty will not be handed over to them, in adherence to the written deed that vindicates its credentials as a mosque since 1453, when it was purchased by Sultan Mehmet, the conqueror. In any case, Aya Sophia was never an ordinary house of worship, but a castle of Knights, a powerhouse of the Byzantine empire.
So, a humble request to all those Muslims whose sentiments are hurt, don’t make the confusion worse confounded, and not equate it with Babri Masjid (that was demolished by Hindu fanatics) or juxtapose it with Masjid Kurtuba (Cordoba) – the history of its capture is starkly in contrast to Aya Sophia; there is no record of public massacre of orthodox Christians or for that matter, of Roman Catholics post the conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul). On the contrary, Muslims were butchered in Spain, a large number of them forcibly converted into Christianity, and a vast majority of them hoodwinked into boarding ships that were later sinked in the Mediterranean sea. The icing on the cake is that Masjid Al Aqsa was handed over to cruel Zionists by none other than the protagonists and flag bearers of the so-called civilised world.
Bilal Ahmad Dar