Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya

Professor Judith Herrin, one of our Executive committee members had the following piece published in the Washington Post on Wednesday; you can read it below:

Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque is an act of cultural cleansing

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is famous for saying, “If we lose Istanbul, we lose Turkey.” Last year, he lost the city’s municipal elections. Today, he is trying to reverse his sliding popularity by backing a religious fundamentalism that threatens Turkey’s minorities, the country’s secular character and Istanbul’s historic role as a tolerant metropolis where Muslim, Christian and Jewish faiths coexisted for centuries.

On Friday, Erdogan’s shortsighted, cynical campaign struck at the very heart of world culture and Istanbul’s essential character. At his instigation, Turkey’s highest administrative court issued a scandalously dangerous and bigoted decision: Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO world heritage site in Istanbul and a global symbol of world history and multicultural representation, should convert from a museum back to a mosque.

By serving as a museum, Hagia Sophia, a vast, 1,500-year-old structure that previously served as a church and then a mosque, represented the essence of Istanbul, a place where world-changing empires and religions conflicted and intersected but whose monuments and artifacts can be enjoyed by all. Friday’s ruling marks a symbolic end to this legacy of tolerance.

Hagia Sophia’s history contains the city’s history. It is a Byzantine church that has dominated the skyline of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, for the city’s entire history. When the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453, it became a mosque. In 1935, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey, made it a museum, and Hagia Sophia was opened to all as a cultural and scientific site. It became a tremendous tourist attraction. Visitors marvel at not only its structure but also the layers of history it embodies.

Constantinople was founded in 330 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Constantine I. He selected an amazing site overlooking the Bosporus with strategic control of the Black Sea. In his “New” Rome, he built an imperial capital that outstripped “Old” Rome.

His son constructed the first church dedicated to “Hagia Sophia,” Holy Wisdom. It served as the cathedral, where the patriarch conducted services attended by the emperor and empress as well as the local population.

As the city expanded, so did the church. In 537, Emperor Justinian, whose rule stretched from Italy to Sinai, dedicated the present structure as an expression of might and piety. It has an enormous dome, 102 feet in diameter, at a height of 184 feet. For nearly 1,000 years, it was the highest and largest in the world.

Decorated in contrasting colored marbles brought from all parts of the Mediterranean, the entire interior surface of Hagia Sophia glowed with golden and silver mosaics that reflected the light flooding in through its many windows.

Justinian’s original church had one internal decoration: a monumental, glittering cross in the dome, now removed. In the late ninth century, figural mosaics were added: the Virgin and Child in the main apse, with the archangels Michael and Gabriel on either side. Later rulers, including the Empress Zoe, commemorated themselves with beautiful gold mosaic portraits and Christian icons.

The great church established the standard. When the Arabs broke out of the deserts to proclaim the faith of Islam, they modeled their first mosques on the Christian domes pioneered by the Byzantines. So when the Turkish Sultan Mehmet II breached the triple walls and rode into Constantinople in May 1453, he could order the symbol of the city, Hagia Sophia, to be transformed into a mosque rather than destroying it.

Under Islamic law, the figural mosaics were either removed or plastered over, a huge loss and a warning of what might happen again. Indeed, while Turkish officials on Friday promised the mosaics won’t be removed, on Monday they announced that they will be covered by curtains or lasers during Muslim prayers.

To turn the unrivaled building back into a place of worship threatens open access to a magnificent structure and the building’s invaluable mosaic decorations. By restricting access to Istanbul’s greatest historical legacy, Erdogan assaults the cosmopolitan traditions that make the city and Turkey itself a crossroads for the world. It is an act of cultural cleansing.

This is a decision of a beleaguered autocrat — the most dangerous — motivated by a desire to punish Istanbul’s inhabitants, who voted decisively against him, and by a desire to consolidate his position by stirring sectarian animosity between his pious followers and those attached to secular traditions.

Hagia Sophia belongs to the world. Its fate is not just a matter, as Erdogan defensively insists, of Turkish sovereignty.

Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya

Members who have been following developments may be interested to read the following open letter which circulated widely in the lead up to the decision and can be found here.

Dr Angeliki Lymberopoulou, Chair of the SPBS Publications Committee, has prepared a petition which you can sign up to by clicking on this link. If you would like to discuss this with her, please contact her via email (a.lymberopoulou@open.ac.uk).

Professor Robert Ousterhout has written a long blog on the same topic which can be accessed here:

https://blog.iae.org.tr/en/uncategorized-en/from-hagia-sophia-to-ayasofya-architecture-and-the-persistence-of-memory

Hagia Sophia/Ayasofya

Professor John Haldon, President of the Association Internationale des Études Byzantines, has written to the President of the Turkish Republic, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, regarding the present reconsideration of the status of Hagia Sophia. This letter is endorsed by the Society for the Promotion of Byzantine Studies and is available in English and Turkish PDFs below.

Hagia Sophia

Ayasofya

Online Event: Byzantium at Ankara

Global Byzantium at Ankara: From Past to Present (Summer Seminar Series)

July 2020

The Byzantine Seminar Series “Byzantium at Ankara” is an event organized and hosted in collaboration by the Department of History at Bilkent University and the Department of History of Art at Hacettepe University which will be held over the entire 2019/2020 Academic Year as organized by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Sercan Yandim and Asst. Prof. Dr. Luca Zavagno (Bilkent University).

The object of the series of talks is to engage Byzantine scholars from different backgrounds and areas of expertise in a conversation on issues which relate and resonate with the current socio-political and economic situation. The importance of building \ these connections should indeed allow to put Byzantium in a global, modern and historical perspective .The idea is to have an inter and multidisciplinary approach to all-encompassing topics like “Famines and Plagues”, “Crisis and Migrations across land and sea frontiers” and “iconography of Byzantine disasters and Renaissance” as debates will be open to scholars and students as well as Medieval and Byzantine enthusiasts.

Schedule

I. Famine and Plagues in Byzantium: archaeology, documentary and hagiography in a comparative perspective – Friday, 10 July 2020 h. 19:00 (Istanbul Time)

Discussants: Beate Bölhendorf Arslan (Philipps Universität Marburg), William Caraher (University of North Dakota), Antje Fehrman (Freier Üniversitat Berlin), and Aneilya Barnes (Coastal Carolina University)

II. Crisis and Migrations across the Mediterranean frontier: was it really all about a Dark Ages after all? – Friday, 17 July 2020 h. 19.00 (Istanbul Time)

Discussants: Rebecca Darley (Birkbeck University), Jonathan Jarrett (University of Leeds), Nicholas Bakirtzis (Cyprus Research Institute) and Luca Zavagno (Bilkent University)

III. Picturing disasters (and Renaissance) in Byzantium – Friday, 24 July 2020 h. 19.00 (Istanbul Time)

Participants: Sercan Yandim (Hacettepe University), Renate Burri (University of Bern), and Ivana Jevtic (Koç University)

All the sessions will be broadcasted via zoom and upon pre-registration at luca.zavagno@bilkent.edu.tr or sercan.yandim@hacettepe.edu.tr a link to attend the seminars will be send one hour before the start of the meeting.