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The Tragic Politicization of Hagia Sophia

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Last Friday, the Turkish Council of State overturned the 1934 ruling that had allowed Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s soaring cathedral-turned-mosque, to be converted into a museum. Minutes later, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decreed that the Great Mosque of Ayasofya (its other name) will open for Muslim prayer in late July this year, righting what he framed as an 85-year-old legal injustice. Hagia Sophia happens to be Turkey’s most popular tourist attraction.Erdoğan has been hinting at doing this since 2018, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Secularism has been enshrined in Turkey’s Constitution since its founding in the 1920s, but the (clearly politically motivated) court decision is only the latest installment in the Justice and Development Party’s broader campaign to promote Islam in Turkish public life. Erdoğan says he wants to raise “a pious generation” by introducing religion into schools, having texts like Pinocchio rewritten, and firing tens of thousands of teachers. To do this, he exploits a loophole in the state’s secularity rule that allows him to superfund the Religious Affairs Directorate (the Diyanet), which administers and promotes Hanafi Sunni Islam in public life and will now control Hagia Sophia. No one faith, let alone one sect, can claim total ownership of this particular building, however. Appalled Christians have noted that Islam itself was only founded in the seventh century, several hundred years after the cathedral was first built. Muslims have retorted, echoing the Turkish State Council’s finding, that Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered the city in 1453, won it fair and square and endowed it in his waqf as a mosque forever. It was a church for the first millennium of its life, then a mosque for almost as long (though not quite). It’s been a museum for less than a century. Who has the strongest claim: the constructor, the conqueror, or the founders of the secular, modern Turkish state?Complicating things yet further, Erdoğan said, “The revival of Hagia Sophia is the harbinger of freedom of Al-Aqsa and the footsteps of Muslims emerging from the era of interregnum,” referring to the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the third-holiest site in Islam (known as the Temple Mount to Jews), and suggesting that the Hagia Sophia is just the first domino in a longer chain of triumphs for Islam in the region.Whether he meant to gesture toward an actual pan-Muslim insurrection or not, his speech still hit home. Erdoğan seeks to divide that which is literally fused together in the architecture of Hagia Sophia. Like many very old places of worship around the Mediterranean—the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Spain, for example, or the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, dedicated first to John the Baptist and then to the martyr Husayn ibn Ali—Hagia Sophia is a jewel of blended origin. The Emperor Constantius II began building the first church in A.D. 360, on a site historians think was once a pagan temple. That wooden basilica soon burned down, and then its replacement burned down, too (riots were not infrequent in Istanbul’s history). The third building project began in 532 under the rule of Justinian the Great, and Hagia Sophia was finished in 537.The new stone basilica was designed by Greek geometers, and its warm, glowing interior looks like an act of God. When it was done, Justinian said, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The central dome is 55.6 meters tall. Marble arches in green and white and purple scatter outward from the center, studded with gold mosaic. Until it was outdone by Seville Cathedral in 1520, Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world. Over the years it has been controlled by different regimes, which each contributed to its interior decoration (including doing necessary repairs), creating a stunning historic and religious mosaic. Crusaders turned it into a Roman Catholic church in 1204, but it reverted to an Eastern Orthodox church in 1261, when the city returned to Byzantine rule. When the Ottoman Empire gained Constantinople in 1453, Mehmed II the Conqueror held his first Friday prayers in the temple and converted it into a mosque. Thus it remained until 1931, when it closed, before the new Republic of Turkey reopened it as a secular museum in 1935. Today, 3.3 million people visit it each year.Hagia Sophia’s eclectic design makes it a part of the mixed, elegant character of the city where it resides. What we now call Istanbul (formerly Byzantium and Constantinople) has been Thracian-, Greek-, and Roman-ruled and home to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, the pious and the irreligious alike. Due to its crucial spot on trade routes, the place we now call Turkey has for centuries been at the center of cultural exchange between East and West, less a borderland than a supercharged, cross-pollinated cultural zone where all kinds of art forms and ideas have melded. As a result, Istanbul boasts a cosmopolitan culture characterized by influences from all over the world—the greatest example of which is Hagia Sophia itself.Greek Christians protest the court’s decision at Hagia Sofia.SAKIS MITROLIDIS/AFP/Getty ImagesSkeptics see Erdoğan’s decree as a last-ditch call to his nationalist base for support as his political star wanes among Turkey’s youth. Even before his disastrous Covid-19 response threatened to destroy the Turkish economy (queasy about offending his religious supporters, Erdoğan failed, for example, to impose quarantines on pilgrims returning from Mecca), he was facing growing opposition over his crackdown on civil society and the judiciary and his disastrous handling of Turkey’s foreign affairs. After Russia’s killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in February, he opened the border with Greece, deliberately provoking violence between migrants and Greek locals. (Turkey was fighting a Russian offensive in northern Syria at the time, causing yet more Syrian refugees to be displaced westward.) In the fall of 2019, he led a disastrous attack on the Kurds in northern Syria, which Donald Trump helped mismanage into a chaotic bloodbath. Erdoğan’s exploitation of Hagia Sophia—perhaps the biggest symbolic weapon in his arsenal—is therefore a grasp at switching the political narrative, and it has worked. The pope is “deeply saddened,” as is the Armenian patriarch of Constantinople. The United Nations and Unesco are furious, their ire only matched by government spokespeople from Athens and Russia. Academics have signed open letters. In a blunt response, Erdoğan’s deputy told Reuters that “the sole decision-making authority about the status of Hagia Sophia … belongs to Turkey. We do not need anyone’s advice or recommendation on our own affairs.”Perhaps the best analysis came from Eastern Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who observed that the museum is a “symbolic place of encounter, dialogue, solidarity, and mutual understanding between Christianity and Islam,” and warned that its homogenization “will push millions of Christians around the world against Islam.” It would be a harmful anachronism, he said, to take a place “in which East and West embrace” and then forcibly “cause a break between these two worlds.” The museum’s closure is a loss to people everywhere, but much more importantly, it’s a symptom of the no-holds-barred approach Turkey’s premier is taking to his leadership. This is a call to religious nationalism, of the same rabble-rousing strain that elected Trump in the U.S. It is also evidence that Erdoğan is running low on ways to make positive headlines—and reaching for last resorts.
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Turkey may suspend ties with UAE over Israel deal, Erdogan says

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Turkey is considering suspending diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and withdrawing its ambassador over the Gulf state’s accord to normalize ties with Israel, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday.The Turkish foreign ministry said history would never forgive the UAE’s “hypocritical behavior” in agreeing such a deal, which recasts the order of Middle East politics.Under the U.S.-brokered deal – the first between Israel and a Gulf Arab state – the Jewish state agreed to suspend its planned annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank which Palestinian leaders have denounced as a “stab in the back” to their cause.”The move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached,” Erdogan told reporters after Friday prayers.”Now, Palestine is either closing or withdrawing its embassy. The same thing is valid for us now,” he said, stating that he’d given orders to his foreign minister.”I told him we may also take a step in the direction of suspending diplomatic ties with the Abu Dhabi leadership or pulling back our ambassador,” he added. Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics The Turkish Foreign Ministry had earlier said Palestinians were right to reject the deal in which the UAE betrayed their cause.”History and the conscience of the region’s peoples will not forget and never forgive this hypocritical behavior,” it said. “It is extremely worrying that the UAE should, with a unilateral action, try and do away with the (2002) Arab Peace Plan developed by the Arab League.”Turkey has diplomatic and trade ties with Israel, but relations have been strained for years.In 2010 Israeli commandos killed 10 Turkish activists trying to breach a blockade on the Gaza Strip, which is ruled by the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.The deal makes the UAE the third Arab country to establish full relations with Israel, after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
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After Hagia Sophia, Turkey’s Erdogan turns another former church into mosque

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday ordered another ancient Orthodox church that became a mosque and then a popular Istanbul museum to be turned back into a place of Muslim worship.

The decision to transform the Kariye Museum into a mosque came just a month after a similarly controversial conversion for the UNESCO World Heritage-recognised Hagia Sophia.Both changes reflect Erdogan’s efforts to galvanise his more conservative and nationalist supporters at a time when Turkey is suffering a new spell of inflation and economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.But the moves have added to Turkey’s problems with prelates in both the Orthodox and Catholic worlds.The Greek foreign ministry called the decision “yet another provocation against religious persons everywhere” by the Turkish government.’Steeped in history’               The 1,000-year-old Kariye building’s history closely mirrors that of the Hagia Sophia — its bigger and more famous neighbour on the western bank of the Golden Horn estuary on the European side of Istanbul.The Holy Saviour in Chora was a Byzantine church decorated with 14th-century frescoes of the Last Judgement that remain treasured in Christendom.It was originally converted into the Kariye Mosque half a century after the 1453 conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks.It became the Kariye Museum after World War II as Turkey pushed ahead with the creation of a more secular new republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.A group of American art historians then helped restore the original church’s mosaics and opened them up for public display in 1958.But Erdogan is placing an ever greater political emphasis on the battles that resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans.Turkey’s top administrative court approved the museum’s conversion into a mosque in November.”It’s a place steeped in history which holds a lot of symbolism for a lot of different people,” said 48-year-old French tourist Frederic Sicard outside the building.”For me, (these conversions) are a little difficult to understand and to follow. But we would visit if it were a mosque. We might just have to arrange visits around prayer times.”‘Shame for our country’The sand-coloured structure visible today replaced a building created as a part of a monastery when Constantinople became the new capital of the Roman Empire in the fourth century.It features a minaret in one corner and small cascading domes similar to those of other grand mosques whose calls to prayer echo across the hills of Istanbul.But inside it is filled with magnificent frescoes and mosaics that represent some of the finest examples of Byzantine art in the Christian world.Turkey’s tumultuous efforts to reconcile these two histories form the underpinnings of the country’s contemporary politics and social life.Opposition HDP party lawmaker Garo Paylan called the transformation “a shame for our country”.”One of the symbols of our country’s deep, multicultural identity and multi-religious history has been sacrificed,” he tweeted.Ottoman Empire historian Zeynep Turkyilmaz called the conversion “destruction” because the building’s walls are lined with Christian art that would have to be either covered up or plastered over — as it was by the Ottomans.”It is impossible to hide the frescoes and mosaics because they decorate the entire building,” the historian told AFP.Yet some locals fully supported the change.”There are dozens, hundreds of churches, synagogues in Istanbul and only a few of them have been opened to prayer as mosques,” said Yucel Sahin as he strolled by the building after the morning rain.”There is a lot of tolerance in our culture.”(AFP)

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Turkey’s Erdogan announces historic natural gas discovery in Black Sea

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A handout photo made available by the Turkish President Press Office shows Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan takes part of a video conference with Turkish drilling vessel Fatih during a press conference as he announces the biggest natural gas discovery in history in Istanbul, Turkey, 21 August 2020. ISTANBUL: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said Turkey had made a historic discovery of gas in the Black Sea, but would still speed up contentious exploration in the Mediterranean that has pitted it against Greece and the EU.Turkey hopes the discovery can help wean it off imported energy, including from Russia, which comes at a high cost at a time when the local currency is weakening and the economy is more fragile because of the coronavirus.Erdogan said the 320-billion-cubic-metre deep sea find was made at a site Turkish vessel Fatih began exploring last month.He added that he hoped to see the first gas reach Turkish consumers in 2023, the 100th anniversary of the birth of the modern republic.”Turkey made the biggest discovery of natural gas in its history in the Black Sea,” a delighted Erdogan said during a speech in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace.”My Lord has opened the door to unprecedented wealth for us,” he enthused.The Fatih, Turkey’s first drilling vessel, is named after Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the Ottoman Sultan who conquered Constantinople — current-day Istanbul — in 1453.The vessel made the discovery in the Tuna-1 field off the coast of Eregli town in the northern province of Zonguldak after beginning the search on July 20, Erdogan said.’Reasons to be cautious’The Turkish lira gained value against the dollar on Erdogan’s promise on Wednesday to report “good news” on Friday, but fell after the size of the find was less than half of that suggested in initial reports.Analysts were also wary of overplaying the discovery’s significance, pointing out that deep sea drilling is expensive and takes time.”There are reasons to be cautious,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.”For one thing, it will take time for the necessary infrastructure to be put in place before the gas can be extracted,” he said in a research note.Tuvey added “the boost to Turkey’s external position may only be temporary.”Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund, tweeted the discovery was “not bad at all (but) not a game changer either.”The volume of gas announced by Erdogan would cover Turkey’s total natural gas needs for six years, at current consumption rates.High energy import billTurkish Finance Minister and Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, speaking aboard the Fatih, said the discovery and future potential finds could reduce Turkey’s import-heavy trade balance by cutting its high energy import bill.Turkey’s energy import bill corresponded to two percent of total economic output last year, according to Capital Economics, with most purchases coming from Russia, Iran and Iraq.Turkey’s Energy Market Regulatory Authority said in January the country’s annual cost of energy imports was between $12 billion and $13 billion (10.2-11.1 billion euros).This month, Erdogan ordered the resumption of controversial energy exploration off the southern coast close to a Greek island in disputed eastern Mediterranean waters.The issue has put Turkey on a collision course with Greece, Cyprus and the European Union, and exacerbated tensions with France, which has stepped up its military presence in the region.But Erdogan showed no sign of yielding to the EU’s repeated call to immediately end the eastern Mediterranean search.”We will accelerate our activities in the Mediterranean with the deployment by the end of the year of (drilling ship) Kanuni, which is currently under maintenance,” he said.”God willing we expect similar good news,” Erdogan added.Turkey dispatched the seismic research ship Oruc Reis accompanied by warships to the region on August 10, angering Greece who said the move threatened peace.

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