On July 10, the Supreme Administrative Council of Turkey annulled the decision of the Turkish government of 1934 to turn the Hagia Sophia mosque into a museum. Now there will be a mosque again, on July 24 the first Friday prayer would be held there. It would take us very long to describe the significance of this monument for world history, built in the VI century, it witnessed the rise and fall of two empires: the Byzantine and Ottoman. Now Hagia Sophia has become a symbol of the fact that for the sake of their interests the Turkish authorities are ready to revise the document of any prescription. Now we are talking about a building in the center of Istanbul, and tomorrow - about the islands in the Aegean Sea, Cyprus, Syria, and even the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.
Throats of legitimacy
If we analyze the actions of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in recent years, it seems that he is struggling to strengthen his power, then to reach a certain plateau of calm development of a new, strong, and independent Turkey. This quiet development of the country would be very helpful - things are getting worse in the Turkish economy, and the Turkish lira to the dollar is only occasionally interrupted in its fall. But the crisis, “difficult times,” “threats to sovereignty,” and the betrayal of the allies who support the enemies of Ankara: the Kurds in Syria and Field Marshal Haftar in Libya, constantly interfere with this.
Turkey, in the eyes of Erdogan and his supporters, is an underestimated power that is rapidly strengthening its influence under the leadership of a strong leader. And in order to solve the remaining problems, this leader needs to be made even stronger, give him even more authority. This was the case in 2016 when for the defendants in the case of an attempted military coup, they had to build a court of increased capacity. So it was in 2017, when, at a constitutional referendum, Erdogan simultaneously untied his hands and reset the deadlines. Finally, this was the case in 2018, when Erdogan and his party won the elections again with the hope of meeting the centennial of the Republic of Turkey (in 2023) at its helm.
But each time Erdogan's victory left a feeling of incompleteness. No one argues that Turkish soldiers and proxies can defeat enemies in the name of national interests, but if you turn off the TV, high prices, instability, rising taxes, and the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic are immediately evident. Support ratings dangerously fluctuate, former associates, leave, and create their own parties.
Erdogan’s authorities like air constantly need new evidence of legitimacy. That is what makes his rule a race from one great goal to another. Turning Hagia Sophia back into a mosque is a sip of legitimacy. Great in its symbolic meaning and very inexpensive in terms of price. Now the name of Erdogan is forever inscribed in history, and for this, he did not even need to send the Turkish army on another overseas campaign.
It is very likely that changing the status of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan tried not only to increase his own rating but also to quarrel between the opposition. The question is "a mosque or a museum?" could well become the Turkish counterpart of the Russian “whose is Crimea?” If politicians respond differently to him, coalitions can no longer be discussed.
In the 2018 parliamentary elections, opposition parties formed a bloc that included secular Kemalists, nationalists, and devout conservatives from the Happiness Party. Then they had nothing to share, but now opposing positions on the status of Hagia Sophia could add confusion to their ranks.
But the split of the opposition did not happen. Realizing the popularity of the idea of Erdogan among the people, no one began to criticize it in essence. Quite the contrary, secular Kemalists were outraged that other states, such as Greece and Russia, were getting into the internal affairs of Turkey with their opinions, and the conservatives even tried to get ahead of Erdogan with a proposal to change their status. Together, they both stated that an architectural monument with a 1500-year history should not become the object of political games and the victim of a momentary conjuncture.
In other words, the secular wing of the opposition had to bend under the conservative majority in order to maintain a united front and not be distracted from the main goal - the struggle against the autocracy of Erdogan.
From a legal point of view, the judgment on Hagia Sophia looks like pure casuistry. As if some historian came to a Russian court and said: the laws of the RSFSR in 1924 required to bury people in the ground, and not to expose them under glass on Red Square, so take Lenin out.
The argument of the Turkish plaintiff, because of which they revised Ataturk’s decision, is equally unsophisticated and not new, although it requires some knowledge of Islamic traditions. If a Muslim is so rich that he cannot just feed the poor, but donate the whole building (a school, a bakery, a mosque built at his own expense) to charity, he gives this property to some kind of foundation - waqf. Waqf property is considered inalienable even after the patron’s death, and the income from it goes to public needs.
When Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror took Constantinople in 1453, the building of the Hagia Sophia became his military booty. He ordered to turn it into a mosque and handed it over to waqf, making a present to his subjects. There were thousands of such donors, albeit on a smaller scale, during the 500 years of the Ottoman Empire’s existence, which greatly complicated the process of government - any building or land allotment was a “gift to Allah” with which nothing can be done. Ataturk, a special commission took up the liquidation of the waqfs.
Now the plaintiff (he was made by the head of the Non-Profit Organization for the Care of Waqf Property, Historical Works and the Environment) stated: the transformation of Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934 is contrary to the will of the Sultan from the 15th century, which means it is illegal. The court unanimously recognized this argument as fair, although earlier it had even refused to consider such statements on the merits. For example, in 2005 (that is, under Erdogan), this NPO tried to get the same claim to be considered in the same Higher Administrative Court. But in 2018, the Constitutional Court decided to cancel the consideration of the case.
It is difficult to imagine what will happen if the decision on Hagia Sophia takes advantage of the heirs of other waqfs nationalized at Ataturk. But this case is unlikely to become a precedent - it was initiated personally by Erdogan. State media and officials talked about the Hagia Sophia case in such a way that there was no doubt - this is the will of the president and people, wrapped up in a court decision for the sake of order.
Unpredictable past and future
Russian State Duma MPs asked their colleagues from Turkey “to show wisdom and not to revise the decision of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk” (this issue was not decided in the parliament though), but in general the Russian reaction could be called very soft. Yes, both the Russian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch Kirill and the MPs were allowed to show their autonomy and criticize Erdogan. But a very friendly conversation between Putin and Erdogan on July 13 confirmed: Hagia Sophia issue would not have an impact on relations between Moscow and Ankara, and all dissatisfaction will be released through the political TV shows.
The reaction of the Russian Foreign Ministry was also restrained – it called the situation "internal affair of Turkey." Maria Zakharova said that the Turkish authorities should only comply with the requirements of UNESCO, which are very specific: notify the World Heritage Committee of any changes regarding the monument, and if necessary, follow the instructions of this Committee.
A Muslim can’t read the prayer when the Virgin Mary is watching from the dome. In the 15th century, Christian mosaics were simply plastered; in 1934, the plaster was removed. And how should we do it now? Most likely, they will hang some kind of curtain or special lighting hiding the images of saints during prayer. And this means a couple of fasteners in the ancient walls will still have to be hammered. But, as the Turkish Foreign Minister assures, everything will be done in accordance with international requirements.
Perhaps that is why the first prayer in Hagia Sophia, contrary to many forecasts, will not take place on July 15, the anniversary of the military coup attempt in 2016, but only on July 24 - the day of the conclusion of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which determined the modern borders of Turkey. First, there will be time to find a compromise with UNESCO and decide how to neatly hide the Christian mosaics during prayer. Secondly, the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne will add even more symbolism to what is happening.
By changing the status of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan challenged not Russia at all, but mainly Greece - both as the heiress of the Byzantine Empire and as a country to which, in Erdogan's opinion, Ataturk ceded too much. Problems that are urgent for today's Turkey, such as gas production on the shelf of Cyprus, largely grew out of the Lausanne Agreement of 1923 (Erdogan constantly calls it non-working and unfair) or the Paris Agreement of 1947. If you look at the map of the Aegean Sea, you will notice that the tiny islets one kilometer from the Turkish coast and a hundred from the Greek one belong to Greece. This severely constrains Ankara's operations in coastal waters and causes constant scandals.
Having destroyed such an important part of Ataturk's legacy as the status of Hagia Sophia, Erdogan sends a signal - if necessary, he can initiate a revision of other foundations of the Turkish Republic. From rhetorical and propaganda steps, this can be the abolition of law No. 5816 "On insulting the memory of Ataturk", or the introduction of criminal liability for adultery, or even the legalization of polygamy (de facto in some regions it already exists). And Turkey's neighbors should remember that, if something happens, Erdogan can start revising the "unfair" and "imposed" international agreements.
It would be too much (even for Erdogan) to completely tear up the Lausanne Treaty or the 1936 Montreux Convention, which limits Turkey's control over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. But it is quite possible to try to interpret them more freely, probing the boundaries of the neighbors' patience, and looking for workarounds.
Turkey has shown many examples of such attempts. This is a project for a new shipping canal through Istanbul, which will not be subject to the Montreux Convention. Or a very free redistribution of the Mediterranean shelf in a pair with the Libyan government of Fayez Sarraj, which depends on Turkish assistance in the civil war. The Greek island of Kastelorizo fell into the "exclusive economic zone" declared by Ankara and Tripoli, but this fact is simply ignored.
Erdogan has already demonstrated his attitude to the Lausanne Agreement when a few months ago at night Turkish border guards simply bulldozed part of the fortifications on the border with Greece to allow refugees to enter the Schengen zone.
Timur Akhmetov, Kirill Krivosheev