Istanbul is not only the largest city of Turkey, a city which attracts attention by having an important date in the east-west axis. 

Its conquest by the Turks in 1453 not only brought the end of the Byzantine Empire, it was accepted as the beginning of a new era for the Islamic world. However, at the same time, a printing press machine was found in Europe and a very important step was taken in order to reach the people of the noble and priestly monopoly knowledge by hand written and reproduced by hand in scriptoriums in monasteries. 

The road from Gutenberg’s printing house to Zuckerberg’s infinite world was being paved rapidly.

Istanbul, the city of ages and ambitions, witnessed the re-conquest of two important Byzantine churches in the last month. Just as the name of the Spanish re-conquered the Iberian peninsula as they put the name of  reconquista, some Muslims in Turkey, the Hagia Sophia and Kariye  Church to be re-converted into a mosque describes in this way.

Hagia Sophia, which was used as a church for 916 years until the conquest of Istanbul by the Turks and as a mosque from 1453 to 1934, was converted into a mosque with the decision of the 10th Department of the High Court (Danıştay) after staying as a museum for 86 years. The historical temple was opened to Muslims again on Friday, July 24, with the Friday prayer, which Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan also attended. 

After this decision, Kariye Museum, another Byzantine church,  was converted into a mosque again with the decision of the High Court and the Presidential decree. 

Kariye Museum, located in Edirnekapı district of Fatih district of Istanbul, dating back to the 6th century and having a very important importance in terms of art history with its frescoes and mosaics, was transferred to the Directorate of Religious Affairs with the article published in the State Official Gazette. Chairman of Religious Affairs Prof. Ali Erbaş visited Kariye a few days ago and made observations. Thus, the service of two important buildings in the city, whose existence dates back to earlier times than the Turks, came to an end. It has not been prayed in Kariye yet, but it is considered certain that it is opened to worship with Friday prayer like Hagia Sophia. As is customary in all Islamic countries conquered with swords, friday sermons are performed by sword. The chairman of Religious Affairs went to Hagia Sophia’s friday sermon with a sword in his hand. Let’s see who will take the sermon of the Kariye Mosque with the sword?

Curtains (cencored) of Kariye and Hagia Sophia

I was around Kariye right after the decision to turn the museum into a mosque. As the restoration of the museum continues, the entire exterior structure was covered with wood and piers. The museum was open for those who wanted to get inside. National media outlets were broadcasting in front of the museum, reporting the latest situation. 

Mehmet Emin Ertaş (42), the 22-year employee of the Pembe Köşk Cafe right in front of the museum, was excited. “We did not have such a mosque in the Kariye neighborhood. This decision made us happy” he says. 

Ertaş agrees with the concerns that the decision will drive foreign tourists away from the region, but also states that all nations should respect the decision.

The grandfather of Murat Kansız (37), who has been selling souvenirs for 26 years in the same region, was a muezzin at the Kariye Mosque. 

“We have been living in this neighborhood since 1934. We also saw that Kariye was a mosque and a museum. Our business will be negatively affected, we know this, but our state has made such a decision ”.

Both Ertaş and Kansız, as neighborhood tradesmen, underline that the mosaics in the museum must be protected. Kansız says: “As in Hagia Sophia, the mosaics of this place should also be preserved. Let it be closed with a curtain during prayer hours. Let the curtains be opened outside of prayer time. “

I am going from Kariye to Hagia Sophia. 

The signs in the streets that appeared were changed. Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque was written instead of Hagia Sophia Museum

The square is surrounded by police barriers. The police are looking for anyone who goes towards Hagia Sophia. Armored vehicles are waiting around the corner. The crowd waiting outside is waiting to enter, regardless of Covid-19. The Friday prayer has just finished and the carpets laid outside have not yet been removed. the visit will begin. As soon as the police open the door, those waiting fill in. The historical structure witnesses the hustle and bustle of curious Muslims.

Everyone inside takes pictures. Arabic speakers are the majority. There are people who come with the flag of a political party or those who pray with their children. Phones are working. Some of them connect to acquaintances and broadcast live inside Hagia Sophia. A prayer from Kagithane district from Istanbul is grateful to God while touring the interior with great curiosity. A Pakistani coming from Leeds, England, with his family refuses our request to talk about the re-conversion of the museum into a mosque. 

I approach one of the few Western tourists I have seen inside. A tourist named Guiseppe from Bologna, Italy, is happy to see Hagia Sophia and adds: “The important thing is that anyone who wants to see it can see it.”

The picture of the Byzantine emperor at the entrance of Hagia Sophia and the mosaics of Christ and Mary inside the mosque are censored with curtains. Construction sounds we hear show that the restoration is ongoing. The area where the work continues is covered with a giant curtain with Ottoman monogram and crescent moon. It is forbidden to go to the upper floor of the museum. Entrances and exits are made from separate points. The floors are covered with turquoise carpet, so the floor coverings of thousands of years from Byzantium are no longer visible. While some of the visitors go out, new ones enter. This filling-emptying system lasts until the next prayer time. When the prayer time comes, Muslims are invited to worship with the call to prayer read from the four minarets of Hagia Sophia. Doors are closed to visitors, mosaics are closed to enthusiasts, and worship begins at the Mosque of Holy Wisdom. Prayer is now performed where the Eastern Roman emperors were once crowned.

Holy Wisdom

All writers, poets and artists who came to Constantinople and Istanbul would visit Hagia Sophia. The voyagers, who had dinner in the Hipodrom Square, gazed at the silhouette of this large building illuminated with yellow lights from the windows of their hotel and dreamed histories. 

In Baudolino novel, which is about the 1204 Latin invasion that devastated the whole city, Umberto Eco makes Niketas say: “Ah Constantinople, mother of churches, princess of religion, guide of perfect thoughts, source of life of all sciences, center of all beauty, you drink a glass of anger from God’s hand and you burned with great fire. “

Hagia Sophia and Kariye, which have seen many attacks and fires throughout history and changed hands numerous times, continue to stand up and be places for worship. What someone calls conquest, others call occupation or peace. 

The sword is still drawn in the temple of a city that was taken with a sword 567 years ago.

I wish the Chairman of Turkish Religious Affairs had changed that tradition of thousands of years and showed a pen instead of a sword in the friday sermon in Hagia Sophia.

A pen would sign the guide of flawless thoughts and the source of life of all sciences.

*Murat Erdin, lecturer and writer, living in Istanbul

Murat Erdin