Hagia Sophia: Erdogan presents himself as “reincarnation of Ottoman Empire”

Turkey's President has masterfully played the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, positioning himself as the reincarnation of the Ottoman Empire. Why is Hagia Sophia so central to Erdogan, and what is the reason behind it? This piece examines!

Erdogan Hagia Sophia

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a surprise visit to Hagia Sophia on Sunday just days before the first Muslim prayers are due to be held at the Istanbul landmark since it was reconverted to a mosque last week.

In a lightning visit billed as an inspection, Erdogan took stock of the conversion work, the president’s office said, providing pictures showing scaffolding inside the building.

Erdogan visits Hagia Sophia mosque

Diyanet, the country’s religious authority, said Christian icons would be curtained off and unlit “through appropriate means during prayer times”.

“Our goal is to avoid harming the frescoes, icons and the historic architecture of the edifice,” Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a television interview on Sunday.

Read more: Turkey honours Hagia Sophia by converting it in to a Mosque

It was unclear whether Erdogan planned to be among some 500 worshippers set to attend Friday prayers.

Turkey’s top court paved the way for the conversion in a decision to revoke the edifice’s museum status conferred nearly a century ago.

The sixth-century building had been open to all visitors, regardless of their faith, since its inauguration as a museum in 1935.

Turkey says Hagia Sophia will be open to all visitors

Earlier this week, Diyanet said the building would continue to be open to all visitors outside the hours given over to prayer.

The UNESCO World Heritage site was built as a cathedral during the Byzantine empire but converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

It was designated a museum in a key reform of the post-Ottoman authorities under the modern republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Read more: Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The revival of Ottoman Empire?

Erdogan said last year it had been a “very big mistake” to convert the Hagia Sophia into a museum.

The reconversion sparked anger among Christians and tensions between historic foes and uneasy NATO allies Turkey and Greece.

Erdogan: a leader with a political base in Muslim revivalism

Born in February 1954, Recep Tayyip Erdogan grew up the son of a coastguard, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. When he was 13, his father decided to move to Istanbul, hoping to give his five children a better upbringing. He spent his evening reciting the Quran and was a keen student of Turkish Islamic scholars who called for an abandonment of the Turkish Union with the West and instead for Turkey’s realignment with the East, especially with the newly formed countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh.

He attended an Islamic school before obtaining a degree in management from Istanbul’s Marmara University .

Mr Erdogan has repeatedly denied wanting to impose Islamic values, saying he is committed to secularism. But he supports Turks’ right to express their religion more openly.

Read more: Erdogan’s dangerous populist gamble at home

Some supporters nicknamed him “Sultan” – harking back to the Ottoman Empire.

In October 2013 Turkey lifted rules banning women from wearing headscarves in the country’s state institutions – with the exception of the judiciary, military and police – ending a decades-old restriction.

Critics also pointed to Mr Erdogan’s failed bid to criminalise adultery, and his attempts to introduce “alcohol-free zones”, as evidence of his Muslim revivalist roots.

A father of four, he has said “no Muslim family” should consider birth control or family planning. “We will multiply our descendants,” he said in May 2016.

Why is Hagia Sophia so important to Erdogan’s political future?

The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque was an old dream of Turkey’s Islamists. In the Islamist political tradition of President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, Ataturk’s experiment in secular republican government was a foreign imposition on Turkey, and the Hagia Sophia’s status as a museum a seal on the country’s spirit.

After 1950, when the Kemalist regime held the country’s first free elections, its political enemies began to organize. Ataturk had died more than a decade before, and the power of his memory was gradually waning.

When Mr. Kisakurek, the powerful Islamist poet, raised the rallying cry for the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque in 1965, it is likely that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at that time a child, would have heard the poet’s call. It is a point to be noted that Erdogan is President of Turkey because of his Islamist base, and this move has allowed him to position himself as a defender of Islam, thereby further solidifying his base.

Read more: Muslim world hails Hagia Sophia conversion

When Mr. Erdogan addressed Turkey on July 10 after the court’s judgment, he cited Mr. Kisakurek’s 1965 Hagia Sophia Conference and cited the other poets as well. The Turkish president wanted the entire nation, not just the Islamists, to make the spiritual journey with him.

In this address to the nation, Mr. Erdogan did not mention Ataturk by name. He did not have to. He quoted at length Mehmet the Conqueror’s will, which states that whoever changes the status of the Hagia Sophia “has committed the most grave sin of all” and that “the curse of God, the Prophet, the angels and all rulers and all Muslims shall forever be upon him. May their suffering not lighten, may none look at their face on the day of Hajj.”

Thus, it can be seen that Erdogan is masterfully crafting a narrative using the conversion of Hagia Sophia to position himself as the reincarnation of the Ottoman Sultans. Both of these are deeply imbedded into the Turkish psyche and are a rallying cause for Turks worldwide.

GVS News Desk with additional input by other sources

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