This is a guest post from Elif Kalaycioglu, who is an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. Her research is on international relations, world order and global governance with a focus on UNESCO’s world heritage regime, global cultural politics and the impact of cultural diversity on the international order and its institutions.
On Friday, June 10th 2020, the highest administrative court in Turkey annulled the 1934 cabinet decree that transformed Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum. UNESCO’s press release, lamented the decision concerning the world heritage site and urged Turkey to protect its universal value as an architectural masterpiece and the symbol of interaction between Europe and Asia. Speaking shortly after the court decision, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that as a mosque, Hagia Sophia will remain the common heritage of humanity in “a much more sincere way.”
This is not the first status change for Hagia Sophia. It began its life as a cathedral in the Byzantine imperium. It was converted into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans in 1453. Following the founding of the Turkish Republic, a 1934 cabinet decree transformed it from a mosque to a museum.
This post analyzes the two most recent status changes of Hagia Sophia guided by the key insight of heritage studies that heritage is adjudicated from a present political vision, draws selectively upon the past, and projects this vision into the future. Both status changes entail particular conjunctions of domestic and international political presents. Specifically, Friday’s decision demonstrates and reproduces a long-standing domestic turn away from the Republic’s earlier orientations towards secularization, modernization and the West. Taken in a context of economic woes and policy disillusionment, it reminds Erdogan’s constituency that the country is still on the path to this desirable future. Internationally, it takes place at a time when the universalist visions of the post-WWII order, including that of UNESCO’s world heritage, are under increased strain.Continue reading