The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey (2008) (all images by the author unless otherwise noted)

I remember the first time I saw Hagia Sophia. It was almost too much to take in: the towering minarets, the ancient sarcophagi and stone fragments of the even earlier church that stood here in the fifth century (which you pass as you walk along the path toward the entrance). Inside, my eyes passed from huge marble jars, to gold painted ceilings, to mosaics of emperors and saints, to the massive, impossibly high dome. Just the sheer immensity of it all inspired awe.

And yet it didn’t belong to me.

As the Turkish government announced that Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) will be converted back into a mosque after 85 years as a museum, one of the primary responses worldwide has been to assert that Hagia Sophia is “universal” heritage, that it belongs to all of us. UNESCO issued a statement warning that Turkey’s decision might affect the building’s “universal value.” “Hagia Sophia belongs to the world,” asserted one prominent Byzantine archaeologist in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. Political and religious leaders insisted that Hagia Sophia is part of “our common world heritage,” that itbelongs to all of humanity,” that the Turkish government’s decision is “an open provocation to the civilized world.” But, however impressed we are by Hagia Sophia, here in America or in Europe or wherever else around the world, however much we love the experience of visiting, this building — a church, a mosque, a museum, a cultural touchstone all in one — isn’t ours.

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia

This is undeniably true on a literal level. Hagia Sophia is physically located in Turkey and is regulated by Turkish law. Beyond that, the nation state is a primary element in international heritage law; recognition of national sovereignty is a basic principle. This produces some unresolved tension with the idea, crystallized in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, that at least some heritage has universal value. But this tension is secondary to the issue of ownership. For the purposes of international agreements, heritage (monuments or movable objects) is controlled by the states in whose territory it’s found.

But it’s also true that Hagia Sophia isn’t ours in a moral sense. For decades Hagia Sophia has been a museum and a major tourist attraction. It is an important object of study for scholars around the world. But despite our protests as tourists or scholars or simple lovers of the past, Hagia Sophia is still a part of Istanbul, and it still belongs to the people who live there. Tourists may come and go, but the residents of the city remain with it, day after day.

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia

There’s a real temptation to argue the idea that heritage is universal. But this same universalist argument has been constantly wielded as a powerful weapon by European and American powers for more than 200 years. Why? Though this argument has been used for such a long time, its purpose is typically the same: to claim that things that belong to people in other parts of the world are really ours. From the British and French fighting over the Rosetta Stone to contemporary scholars wanting UNESCO to intervene to “protect” ancient African manuscripts, Europeans and Americans in particular have used claims that heritage belongs to the world to get access to or take control of things belonging to those in less powerful countries. When the Met opened the exhibition Assyria to Iberia in September of 2014, it held a lavish opening ceremony. There, against the backdrop of the picturesque Temple of Dendur, then-Secretary of State John Kerry invoked universalism to insist that the world must stop ISIS’s destruction of cultural heritage. Hours later, the US began its bombing campaign in Syria. Universalist arguments routinely turn out to be justifications for very particular claims for access, for possession, for violence. We must resist this temptation here, even if we find Erdogan’s politics troubling or even outrageous.

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia

We should also be careful not to treat the problem as a religious one. Old buildings are constantly used by people today, throughout the world, for all different functions. While this presents serious challenges for preservation, we should keep in mind that preservation is not the only or even necessarily the highest priority. The use of an ancient building as a mosque is no more damaging than the use of a building as a place of worship for any other religion. Do we really want to argue that the problem is that Hagia Sophia will be used specifically as a mosque? As it is, Turkish authorities have insisted that Hagia Sophia’s mosaics will be preserved, and its portable relics displayed in a museum nearby. But we can already see the potential for the targeting of mosques in revenge.

By emphasizing national sovereignty, however, heritage law encourages a different problem. It reinforces nationalist exploitation of heritage, no matter how cynical or vulgar or damaging to minority populations within a country, or to people of supposed enemy countries beyond the nation’s borders. Hagia Sophia’s past as a church cannot be ignored. It was the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years and served as the seat of the patriarch of Constantinople. It still holds a central place in the Greek Orthodox world. But beyond this, what of its importance to all the Greeks who used to live (and the relatively few who still do) in Istanbul? Over a million Greeks were forcibly removed from Turkey in 1923 as part of a population transfer with Greece. Many more fled after incidents such as the Istanbul pogrom which targeted the Greek community in 1955 and further deportations in the 1960s. The real problem of converting Hagia Sophia back to a mosque, then, lies in its potential role in Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sectarian nationalism, and the very real dangers this movement poses to non-Muslims in Turkey. “It is not about us, neither the agendas to convert it to a mosque nor loud reactions against it in Turkey or abroad,” as Christian, Turkish-British think tank fellow Ziya Meral told the Washington Post. But perhaps it should be.

YouTube video

Clearly, we need a way of thinking about heritage that is neither nationalist nor universalist. A way of foregrounding the people who live with these remains of the past every day — along with those who now live in a diaspora, yet still value these monuments and artifacts as an important part of their lives. But this problem is reflected in the very name “heritage.” It focuses on the past — monuments and artifacts as an inheritance — rather than the lives of people today. An inheritance that, we’re led to believe, can’t be left to local groups but must be stewarded by powerful nation states. Maybe the real problem with who owns Hagia Sophia is the concept of heritage itself.

Michael Press is an archaeologist who writes on Middle Eastern archaeology, biblical studies, and how these fields are presented to the public. He received a PhD from Harvard University in Near Eastern...

11 replies on “Who Really Owns Hagia Sophia?”

  1. Michael, this is a lovely piece. You’re totally right that the people that live in Istanbul get to lay a claim upon Hagia Sophia. As I was reading your piece, I was thinking about St. Patrick”s cathedral, which is open to tourists but they have to step back during mass and can’t circulate freely through the space. It seems the proposal right now allows for visits for non-muslims on other days besides Fridays when it is used for a call to prayer. It actually strikes me as fair. You are correct that Erdogan has some issues. Although as an American living under Trump, I find myself thinking that those in glass houses shouldn’t through stones. I enjoyed how much your piece indicted claims to universalism. It’s telling how these claims only seem to get invoked when western powers want something they aren’t getting.

  2. This is a fine piece. I agree with your critique of ownership and the nation-state’s role in determining what may be called “universal.” In fact, we can easily claim that it the very concept of the “universal” is itself Euro-centric and rife with new questions to explore. I also think much of the outrage directed at Erdogan and his decision to make Hagia Sophia a mosque is rooted in anti-Islam emotions and politics in the West. I write this as a Greek Orthodox man. I think it is also important to see Erdogan’s decision as a cynical ploy to embolden the extremist elements in Turkey and to curry their favor to tighten his loosening grip on power in his country. This is an issue with I thinks should be explored in your article.

    I will say and always maintain that some cities and monuments truly “belong” to the world in the metaphorical sense. Cities like Venice, Paris or New York are far too international and cosmopolitan to ever truly be defined by their geography solely. I believe the same is true of Hagia Sophia, the Parthenon, and The Great Wall of China, for example. In such cases I believe the issue becomes one of stewardship and safeguarding. In this light, Turkey has violated its sacred duty to protect and preserve for all the world, a special and sacred monument like Hagia Sophia.

  3. We’ll see, post-COVID, if their tourism numbers are lowered because of the change. There is clearly a way to balance tourism/art historical appreciation and religious functions. As noted below it is done throughout the world in cathedrals and historical temples that still function as religious sites. Ownership was never an issue, because that’s clear within borders. The label of a “UNESCO World Heritage Site” is a boon to attract tourist dollars. Personally, as an artist who appreciates Art History, I have always wanted to go to Turkey to see this spectacular architectural example. I have been stymied in the past due to conflicts between Greece and Turkey, financial reasons, and more. I hope that the stewardship of such a magnificent work will be steady and more than sufficient. As for internal politics within Turkey, secular vis-à-vis religious, it’s theirs to contend with. This is an issue in many parts of the world and is a source of many conflicts. Unfortunately separation of “church” and state or a balance between the two is an extremely difficult concept for many to digest no matter the religion.

    1. The label of a “UNESCO World Heritage Site” is a boon to attract tourist dollars.

      Yes, and it’s those tourist dollars that motivate local authorities to keep those sites intact rather than, say, tearing them down to build condos.

      Cynical money-grubbing has its uses.

  4. I am a writer who loves art and architecture. Of course, I will never forget my visits to the Hagia Sophia.

    This article articulates the questions and issues surrounding “world heritage” very well. I hope, as much as anyone can, that sites like the HS and Angkor Wat will not fall as prey to the whims of politicians or others with temporal, self-serving interests.

    In reading the article, however, I also couldn’t help but to wonder about all of the pieces that “belong to the world “ but are sequestered in museums far from the places, and divorced from the cultures, in which they were created—and, in some cases, stolen by colonial powers. I recall that some years back, Philippe de Montebello posed that question: Should Hittite artifacts, for example, be repatriated to Turkey? Should Venus de Milos be returned to Greek island whence she came? For that matter, should Native American works be given back to the people who lived on the land now occupied by the museums that house them?

    Alas, I don’t know how to answer such questions. But the article is a good starting point.

  5. I am curious whether you will write a similar article about The Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba. Although, you are being much fairer than most other anti-Muslims out there, nevertheless your point leads to conclude that “Turkey is in the wrong“ because it forcibly removed “the minority population” who would had been physically there to justify your argument about “people who live near the monument” are the ones entitled to make decisions for its destiny. (FYI, which seems to be intentional, you fail to explain, there was an international agreement for population exchange between the current Greek cities and Turkish cities as the state of Greece was carved out of the Turkish Empire – Ottoman which had very diverse multinational cities all across. You brilliantly leave that info out. Instead you pass biased judgment on Turkey. Turkey did not force Greek population out, both countries abided by the international agreement).

    Even “intellectual“ western educated populace cannot come to terms with Turkey’a existence. It’s a shame.

    And yes; Hagia Sophia’s past as a church cannot be ignored.

    It was ransacked by the crusaders in 1204. There is no other example of such extreme plundering throughout history. But that does not seem to take any part in your piece.

  6. The real problem of converting Hagia Sophia back to a mosque, then, lies in its potential role in Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sectarian nationalism.

    That’s just it.

    Yes, Erdoğan’s government has promised that none of the ancient Christian artwork in Hagia Sophia will be damaged or destroyed and that it will simply be obscured by curtains during Muslim prayers. And so far (for all of two weeks) authorities have kept that promise.

    Many people all over the world would be okay with that situation — if they thought Erdoğan could be trusted not to break that promise and damage that irreplaceable ancient art at any time he thought it would help his political prospects.

    And it’s not as if there’s a crying need for Hagia Sophia to be made into a mosque in order to accommodate local worshipers. There is, after all, a large, historic, and very beautiful mosque directly across the street.

  7. contemporary scholars wanting UNESCO to intervene to “protect” ancient African manuscripts

    I see that the link Michael Press provided there refers to the Abba Gerima Gospel manuscripts in Ethiopia, but that phrase made me think of another example that might be relevant here: the medieval manuscripts and shrines of Timbuktu.

    Those manuscripts and shrines may not belong to us in the West, but neither do they belong to the Ansar Dine rebels who marched into Timbuktu from elsewhere wanting to destroy them.

    What is the rest of the world to do in cases such as Timbuktu or Bamiyan where bad actors want to destroy some irreplaceable cultural goods and the local custodians of those goods are simply not strong enough by themselves to fight the bad actors off?

    The logic of Michael Press’s argument seems to indicate that the rest of the world must simply watch and shake its head in sadness and remember that humans are terrible creatures and life sucks.

    That may well be the answer, but Press seems reluctant to make that case directly.

  8. Firstly, if the author is making a claim for the moral stewardship of the local Istanbul community, the re-dedication of Hagia Sophia must be placed in a context that also includes the Gezi Park protests. Secondly, if this model of contemporary local stewardship was reproduced in the contemporary United States, it would clearly lend support to (for a lazy instance) the preservation of confederate monuments. In the final analysis the piece smacks of north american touristic orientalism.

  9. This is a political decision that is being done based on the power to do so. Perhaps Turkey is currently hurting for tourists and pilgrims and this would be a symbolic gesture that would appease current religious influences within Erdogan’s perpetual government. Interesting argument that reminds me of the pro-Brexit debate as well as our more current political debate over States’ Rights versus Federal powers in a context of the never ending process of colonization and will to power.

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