In 987 AD some ambassadors from a pagan people known as the Rus were sent from their base at Kyiv (Kiev) to explore the belief systems of other peoples in the region. On their travels they were ushered into ‘The Church of the Holy Wisdom’ in Constantinople. Here is how one of them described that experience:
“We were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with mortals and their worship is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty, since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards; so we cannot remain any more in paganism.”
Thus began the long process of the conversion of the Russian people to Eastern Orthodoxy, inspired by a building. And what a building! Completed in 537 during the reign of possibly the greatest of the Byzantine Emperors, Justinian I (482-565), Hagia Sophia stood at the heart of Orthodox Christianity ever since. Its power, grandeur and majesty never ceases to amaze. That was precisely the point. As Justinian reportedly declared, reaching back to the Jewish temple in Jerusalem for an appropriate comparison: “Solomon, I have vanquished you!”
Hagia Sophia soon became the seat of the Orthodox patriarch. This means that for Orthodox believers its status is, in some ways, comparable to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Sadly, however, the empire, at the heart of which it stood, was vulnerable to the encroachment of Islamic jihad. After centuries of heroic resistance the Byzantine empire finally succumbed to the armies of Islam on 28 May 1453. Fittingly and symbolically the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, retreated to Hagia Sophia where he was cut down at the altar by the forces of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II.
Mehmet II had big plans for Hagia Sophia. Upon first entering the church he brought with him a muezzin to issue the Islamic call to prayer. This officially, in Muslim eyes at least, turned the church that had stood at the heart of Orthodox Christianity for 936 years into a mosque. Soon four minarets would be erected next to it to reinforce this position. The loss of Hagia Sophia is still an open wound for Christians around the world and you do not even have to be a Christian to bemoan the forcible conversion, to an alien purpose, of a building with roots stretching all the way back to late-antiquity.
Fast forward to the 20th century and the setting up of the Turkish Republic in place of the Ottoman Empire. In 1931 the great Turkish reformer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, determined to steer his country on a more secular path, decided to forge a middle-way solution for the status of Hagia Sophia by declaring it to be a museum. This meant that people from both faiths, or none, could at least visit the cathedral and draw their own conclusions from its history. And vast numbers of people did. Clocking in at more than 3 million annual visits it is by far the most popular visitor attraction in Istanbul.
All that changed with the 11 July 2020 announcement by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the building will, once again, become a mosque. Why would he do such a thing? Is it perhaps lack of space for Istanbul’s Muslims to pray? Hardly. Just across the road from the Hagia Sophia is the ‘Blue Mosque’ with enough space to comfortably accommodate 10,000 worshippers. No, Erdogan’s announcement is a long cherished dream of Turkey’s Muslim faithful. They want the message that Islam vanquished all that came before it to be heard loudly and clearly. What better way to broadcast this than camping out in one of the most significant Christian churches ever constructed?
The world should sit up and take notice of this event. We are so often told that Muslims only want peaceful coexistence. That Islam is just one more thread in the lovely tapestry of diversity. What better way could there have been to showcase this desire for peaceful coexistence than to allow Hagia Sophia to remain a museum (or even, perish the thought, to revert to its intended purpose and become a church again)? Instead, we see a clearly supremacist and aggressive assertion of the absolute superiority of Islam. All of this in a country long promoted as a shining example of a moderate Islamic society.
We are asked to believe that supremacist impulses are somehow left behind when Muslims live in non-Islamic societies. Yet, there are countless mini-Hagia Sophias scattered around the world. Churches, synagogues and temples that are now used as mosques. All communicating the same message. Islam is not here to integrate but to dominate.
Perhaps the fate of Hagia Sophia will finally cause the world to wake up to the reality and dangers of Islamic suprematism. Sadly, I’m not holding my breath.
For more on the textual basis of Islamic suprematism and the ways in which this is manifested, please see my book ‘Nothing to do with Islam? – Investigating the West’s Most Dangerous Blind Spot’