Museum or Mosque?

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia has been a monument to selective readings of history.

The Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. Alamy.

Mehmet the Conqueror converted the cathedral of Hagia Sophia to a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. It was a symbolic move. The conversion involved minimal physical transformation and even the name remained the same: Ayasofya Camii. Since its construction in the sixth century, this building has accrued meanings that have nothing to do with its physical form, very little to do with its history and even less to do with religion.

Half a millennium after Mehmet’s conversion, Gazi Kemal performed a similar transformation: as he secularised the Turkish state, he secularised Hagia Sophia. On 24 November 1934 – the same day that he was proclaimed ‘Atatürk’ (Father of the Turks) – the Turkish Council of Ministers decreed that the building should be turned into a museum:

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