Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque is more than a mere re-classification of an ancient, extraordinary building. It is another step in the Turkish eradication of the Greek-Byzantine history of Istanbul/Constantinople.
It was a brief news item hardly worthy of the evening broadcast: Hagia Sophia in Istanbul will be reconverted to a mosque.
Most Australians, never having heard of the building, would pay no attention to the announcement. Why would it matter that a building that apparently was once was a mosque was to again become a mosque?
But Hagia Sophia did not start out as a mosque and has not spent most of its life as a mosque. It started life in 537 as the Church of Santa Sophia, the church of Divine Wisdom. With its 55 metre high dome, spanning 31 metres in diameter it stood for centuries as the most impressive and sumptuous church in the world.
In 987 envoys who visited Constantinople told Prince Vladimir of Kiev: “We went into the Greek lands, and we were led into a place where they serve their God, and we did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth.” The report is said to have so impressed the Prince that he abandoned paganism and decided to unify the Rus under Orthodox Christianity.
Were it just a building, the announcement that Hagia Sophia is to become a mosque would be noteworthy, but little more. The structure has stood solidly since it was rebuilt after an earthquake in 558 and those who are turning it into a mosque are not going to knock it down.
But what is significant is that the re-classification of the building is another step in the Turkish whitewashing of the Greek history and heritage of the city of Istanbul/Constantinople.
Equally importantly, it is part of the annihilation of the Greek people of Istanbul. In 1945 Istanbul — the once capital of the Byzantine Empire — had an estimated 200,000 Greeks. Today only around 2000 survive. Like the Armenians, who were massacred and forced to flee in the genocide of 1915 and the Jews who have also fled, the Greeks will soon be all but gone.
Here I should declare my interest. My mother was a Greek born in Istanbul. Last year, searching for her childhood home, Apartments Aznavour, I walked along Istiklal (Independence) St, the grand boulevard that leads up a hill to the major Istanbul rallying point of Taksim Square. On the street, opposite a Catholic church in what is becoming a trendy part of town, stood the building under-going renovation and on its entrance floor the unmistakable symbols of a Greek past, large mosaics of crosses and dolphins.
It wasn’t called Istiklal St in my mother’s day. Then it was the Grande Rue de Pera. In 1955 it was to feature in another of the events that have contributed to the Greek abandonment of the city, the September Istanbul pogrom.
My mother had left Istanbul by then but her father still lived in the city and her anxiety is burned in my memory as she waited for news of his fate. The pogrom was sparked by false reports that Greeks had bombed the birthplace in Thessaloniki of Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk. Riots started in Taksim Square and spread down Istiklal St and across the old suburb of Beyoglu (Pera), with the ransacking of Greek shops. The mob chanted “Death to the infidels” and killed at least 30.
What burns in my memory most is the post-riot accounts my mother told from letters her father wrote telling her that he had reburied what he believed were her mother’s bones at the Greek cemetery where she had lain. I could not recall its name but I’ve since visited the Greek cemetery of Sisli, which was targeted and where crosses and statues were vandalised and vaults opened and where my grandfather, grandmother and great aunts now lie.
My mother’s school, Zappeion, was also vandalised. Founded in 1875, the then all girls school stands near Taksim Square, next to the Greek Orthodox Church of Hagia Triada and across the road from the Armenian Esayan School, one of the few Armenian schools still operating in Turkey today.
In 2009 Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan admitted that his people had committed mistakes and blamed the expulsion of minorities on fascist policy. But on 10 July 2020, just hours after the Turkish high court annulled a 1934 decision that had made Santa Sophia a religious landmark and museum, the now President Erdogan bowed to extremist pressure and formally declared the building to be a mosque and open for Muslim worship.
It’s all history now. Invasions and landgrabs happen. The Turks, once a people of the Mongolian plateau, moved west invading Armenia and eventually taking the capital of the Byzantine empire, Constantinople, in 1453.
Large minorities survived for centuries under the Ottoman Turkish rulers — Arabs, Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians and Jews. The Greeks were the people of the coast, along the Black Sea in the East, around the Sea of Marmara and down the Mediterranean coast in the West. The Armenians were the people of Anatolia, Eastern Turkey.
Turkey denies the history of the Armenian massacre. But it is well documented in contemporary accounts and records as told in books such as Taner Akcam’s The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity and Geoffrey Robertson’s An Inconvenient Genocide.
There is no question: the Armenians were targeted during World War 1 by a Turkish policy of total destruction. An estimated 1.5 million were killed or forced to flee into the desert of what is now Syria. On their way many were harried by Kurds. Some lucky ones escaped to Russia or Europe.
While the event was well recorded by foreign observers, no action was taken and as Hitler moved to apply the same policy to Poles, Jews and gypsies, he famously observed in August 1939: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”
Today in central Istanbul you can still see the abandoned houses of Armenians, Jews and Greeks. I still hold the “Tapu” (title deed) to one of these now run-down Beyoglu-district properties that was owned jointly by my grandmother, my great aunt and my mother.
But the wheel has turned and the large old house is now occupied, presumably rent-free, by Kurds or Syrians, refugees from the turmoil sparked by the American invasion of Iraq.