Turkey’s religious symbolism startles the EU

By Bill Wirtz

Last year, the Turkish government transformed the museum of Hagia Sophia into a grand mosque. The move was a political calculation that sparked outrage in certain religious communities, among defenders of secularism, and in Brussels. The transformation is more than a mere formality, it strikes at the heart of the complicated relationship between the EU and Turkey. Bill Wirtz explores the political implications of this move both in Luxembourg and on the ground in Istanbul.

*This article exists due to the help of Nazlıcan Kanmaz, who translated conversations from Turkish to English, helped navigate around Istanbul, and took the pictures you can see in this piece.

The “Marmaray” train that runs under the Bosporus Straight, connecting the Asian side of Istanbul with the European one, comes to a zishing halt. Istanbul is in the midst of a pandemic, but in a city of almost 16 million people, it is hard to tell at the Sirkeci metro station, used by over a million people per day. The long halls of the station fill with people, with some standing in front of a signpost that indicates the numerous exits to choose from. The sign that used to show the way to the Hagia Sophia museum now has a fresh sticker covering the old letters. It now reads “Ayasofya-i Kebir Cami-i Şerifi”, the “Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque”.

A set of tourists makes its way up the hill to Hagia Sophia. The 55-meter high building towers over Istanbul, majestically attracting the eyes of tourists and locals alike. A security checkpoint with heavily armed police officers checks bags in a propped up tent. There is no queuing for tickets anymore, but women are scrambling to find a way to cover their hair, while some brought their own scarfs to comply with the rules of the new mosque. The word “new” is historically ambivalent for those aware of the history of Hagia Sophia. 

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