Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced that the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia will become a mosque again, after 85 years as a museum and a designated Unesco World Heritage site. It will be the fifth church of the same name — all once symbols of the Eastern Roman Empire and priceless cultural treasures — to face the same fate in recent years.
Erdogan is facing political threats, from old allies like former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, and from Turkey’s poor economy. He will be hoping that this radical move consolidates his support. It is not certain that it will work. Berk Esen, international relations professor at Ankara’s Bilkent university, said that ‘if it is finally turned into a mosque, it’s going to be seen as a victory for Erdogan and the Islamist movement… But I don’t think Erdogan will be able to expand his voter base.’
But we must look beyond Turkey’s domestic troubles and raw sentiment with a cool head, because, above all, the move signals what might prove to be era-defining shifts, right on Europe’s borders. The target is not simply domestic. In the same breath as he means to placate his followers, Erdogan takes aim at geopolitical opponents in the West and the East.
When Kemal Ataturk, the founder of contemporary Turkey, turned the Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934, he hoped to mark the end of Islam’s primacy in public life, as it was in the Ottoman years. This would be a new, secular state. It was also meant to be a gesture of good will towards Greece, with whom Turkey fought a bloody war a decade earlier that ended in ethnic cleansing and genocidal acts against Christians. It is here that Erdogan’s revisionist vision manifests, and where his greatest provocation lies.