How Hagia Sophia reflects the political trajectory of Turkey

Converting the Hagia Sophia Mosque, earlier a church, into a museum in 1935 was Kemal Atatürk’s way of resolving a centuries-old tussle between the two Semitic faiths.

 |  4-minute read |   10-08-2020
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As the narrative surrounding Hagia Sophia plays out, I find myself travelling back to informal chats with ordinary Turks on the country’s streets a decade ago.

It was a motley group at a seaside café in Eceabat. The café owner who was an avowed Kemal Atatürk admirer, a young Kurdish man who assisted her and loathed the father of modern Turkey, a German who loved sailing in the warm waters of the Mediterranean, and myself. We were sharing a table over a conversation on a lean business day for the cafe, “We don’t see too many Indians visiting Gallipoli,” said the lady. “Yup, we haven’t done justice to our dead soldiers lying along your Aegean shores,” I quipped. The Gurkhas and the Indian Mule Corps formed a part of Allied troops’ ill-conceived plan to control the Dardanelles strait first, and then the Bosporus strait. The Battle of Gallipoli in the First World War enjoys a significant place in the hearts of Turks, and so does the man who led that campaign – Kemal Atatürk. But not unequivocally so, as I was soon to learn.

main_kemal-ataturk-f_081020125741.jpegWhile Kemal Atatürk is admired as a war hero and the founder of the modern republic, his legacy vis-a-vis the West-inspired sweeping socio-cultural changes divided the nation. (Photo: Reuters)

“Kemal is the reason why you see a woman running a café in this tiny outpost. He empowered the women of Turkey who were earlier tied to the family homestead.” Kemal lost his father early in life and saw the hardships faced by his mother and sisters. His father, who worked in the army, had enrolled him in a secular school as opposed to an Islamic school in Salonika (now Thessaloniki) in modern-day Greece, which was then under Ottoman rule. The cosmopolitan milieu of the city, with sailors and traders visiting from diverse European and Asian nations, and his stints at the military academy, led to Kemal developing a liberal attitude. One that laid the foundation of the Cultural Revolution that he was to usher in in subsequent years.

Educated in Istanbul, the lady represented Atatürk’s constituency – secular, liberal, Turkish speaking and comfortable in the blend of Western and Eastern thought. As the evening wore on, city lights of Canakkale on the Asian side across the Dardanelles strait could be seen. The young Kurd, from the eastern town Siirt — near Turkey’s border with Syria and Iraq — had a very different opinion on Kemal. “Our people supported him during his campaign to turn Turkey into a republic (in 1923) in lieu of autonomy to the Kurdish region. He betrayed us and subsequently executed many Kurdish leaders.” Despite being the largest ethnic minority, there are many constraints on them such as the ban on the Kurdish language as a medium of instruction in schools.

While Kemal is admired as a war hero and the founder of the modern republic, his legacy vis-a-vis the West-inspired sweeping socio-cultural changes divided the nation. He banned the veil and the Fez cap, and ordered the use of western clothing, especially at work. This was followed by an even more lasting change that decisively turned Turkey away from its connection with the Islamic world. The introduction of the Latin alphabet instead of the Arabic script was a watershed step. Converting the Hagia Sophia Mosque, earlier a church, into a museum in 1935 was Kemal’s way of resolving a centuries-old tussle between the two Semitic faiths. 

main_hagia-sophia-bo_081020125841.jpgHagia Sophia’s magnificent structure with its majestic dome and minarets looks hauntingly beautiful from the waters of Bosporus strait – a view which has dominated the city skyline for over millennia. (Photo: Reuters)

While the army elite and urban centres largely took to the changes, the rural areas and communities steeped in Islamic faith struggled with these state-induced changes. Following Kemal’s death in 1938, the army’s resolve to keep the secular flame alive progressively dwindled. Coups against democratically elected governments became the norm through the latter half of the 20th century. The ensuing chaos provided ideal conditions for the gradual revival of faith-based nationalism.   

Hagia Sophia had been one of the major draws for my trip. The magnificent structure with its majestic dome and minarets looks hauntingly beautiful from the waters of Bosporus strait – a view which has dominated the city skyline for over millennia. The smattering of Christian and Islamic motifs juxtaposed together harked back to its central position in both faiths. The only time the two Turks in the cafe agreed was when they said: “A museum seems like a good reconciliation.”  

Also Read | Hagia Sophia: Erdogan's dream is Turkey's nightmare

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Rajesh Mishra Rajesh Mishra

The author is a feature writer and travel professional.

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