Hagia Sophia
© Reuters/Murad Sezer
Hagia Sophia
It may win President Erdogan a few Islamist friends, but turning Istanbul's former Orthodox Christian cathedral, Hagia Sophia, into a mosque shows total disregard for a fragile religious balance and a key cultural destination.

Turkey's decision to convert the famed Hagia Sophia - the nation's most-visited tourist site - into a mosque has brought Islamist ideology to the doorstep of Europe in one chilling decree.

The former Orthodox Christian cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, attracted more than 3.7 million visitors last year. But those numbers will plummet from now on, as tourists steer clear of what will be an active mosque, with most preferring a little less controversy when looking to immerse the family in a foreign culture.

Not only will visitors from abroad be puzzled by the move, but President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's push to annul the site's museum status has not gone down well in neighboring Athens, or even in the USA, for that matter, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advised against going ahead with the ill-considered plan.

Lina Mendoni, Culture Minister for Greece, home to millions of Orthodox Church followers, lambasted Erdogan, telling the BBC, "It takes his country back six centuries." As one of two European Union (EU) members sharing a border with Turkey, Bulgaria being the other, Greece will be anxiously waiting for a similarly firm response from its fellow members in the bloc, but could be waiting a long time.

Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the EU is running on fumes. The institutions are barely ticking over, MEPs are scattered to the winds, and online meetings with a skeleton staff are the order of the day. That makes it hard to build up momentum behind a campaign to put pressure on a tricksy foreign government outside the EU's realm that has decided now's the time for some fun and games. And Erdogan knows it.

The cathedral was built around 1,500 years ago by Byzantine emperor Justinian, but converted into a mosque in 1453 by the Ottomans. However, in 1934, as part of a drive to make Turkey more secular, it was turned into a museum. But that sort of thinking is of no interest to the current president.

Ever keen to establish himself on the world stage as a tough guy, Erdogan brazenly telegraphed his move to cozy up with Islamist interests by broadcasting the first call to prayer from the Hagia Sophia on Turkey's main news channels, and pulling the plug on the cultural site's social-media channels.

Moreover, he's undermined the country's fragile Christian-Muslim coexistence and set out to achieve exactly the opposite of what Mustafa Kemal Ataturk sought to do when he turned the site into a museum to underline his vision for modern Turkey.

Erdogan is a lot of things, but he's no Ataturk. The founder of the Republic of Turkey ruled the country as a benevolent dictator for 15 years. And it looks as if Erdogan resents that fact. According to his puppets in the Council of State, the reason for reverting the Hagia Sophia to a mosque is that Ataturk was wrong to change the status of a religious structure in the first place.

It took 86 years for the current president to arrive on the scene and reach that politically expedient conclusion, even though most of Turkey seemed to have been quite happy with their immensely popular museum, the millions of tourists it attracted, and the lira they spent.

Claims that the site will still be open to foreign visitors of any faith and will therefore prove as popular as ever, are misleading. Wandering around a museum dressed in beachwear, talking loudly, taking photos and shouting at the kids to stop running are all part of being a tourist and visiting a famous cultural site abroad. If, for one moment, anyone believes that forbidding any of those things will have no impact on the numbers visiting Hagia Sophia, then they know nothing about tourists. And even less about the 21st century.
About the Author:
Damian Wilson is a UK journalist, ex-Fleet Street editor, financial industry consultant and political communications special advisor in the UK and EU.