Hagia Sophia and Historical Heritage: The Politics of Identity in Contested Spaces

Gregory Goalwin, Aurora University

In 2020 President Erdogan of Turkey reinstated the Hagia Sophia as a working mosque. Built as a Christian church in 537 and converted to a mosque following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the edifice had been a secular museum since 1935. Erdogan’s decision to reclassify Hagia Sophia as a mosque was divisive: met with passionate acclaim by religiously devout Turks but immediately criticized by many Western cultural organizations, Christian groups, and even secular Turks. But how do ancient sacred spaces become so important to modern religious, political, and cultural concerns? Who has the right to claim such ancient legacies as elements of their own cultural heritage, and just as importantly to exclude others from doing the same? How does the heritagization of religious elements play into complicated relationships between religion and secular definitions of the nation? I approach these questions by examining the debates around the secularization and de-secularization of Hagia Sophia. Drawing on data from the founding of the Turkish Republic and modern reports about the decision to reinstate the mosque, I argue that such conversations about heritage have played a key role in the conceptualization of Turkish identity. I place the history of Hagia Sophia within larger debates about the relationship between religion and secularism in Turkey. I argue that the history of Hagia Sophia reveals a complicated balancing act between a Turkish nationalism that has used religion to marginalize non-Muslim populations as not truly “Turkish” while struggling to define the extent to which Islam would serve as a core element of Turkish identity. In this regard, debates over material heritage such as Hagia Sophia serve as a microcosm for conflicts over the role of religion, secularism, and national identity in Turkish public life, as well as its relationship with Europe and the larger world.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 100. Religious Encounters and Meaning