Breaking the status quo: The long shadows of Hagia Sophia, Beinart and the Kotel

Amid today’s heated politics about the Holy Land, it’s easy to forget this place’s intimate connection to the great city on the Bosphorus that was once called Constantinople, but we got a striking reminder this month when an ancient holy site there was turned into a mosque. The implications of that dramatic change in that city that has been called Istanbul for over 500 years may end up having strong ripples for the prospects of peace, or war, here in Jerusalem, and are a reminder of the spiritual nature of everything that happens here.

Changes in the ‘status quo’ at holy sites are particularly combustive in this part of the world. The uneasy peace at the site of the platform that held the ancient Israelite temple is only kept by the status-quo understanding that the Jewish religious space is below at the site of the Western Wall — the Kotel — and that the Muslim religious space is above, on top of the platform, where the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque are located. 

Hagia Sophia Mars 2013
Hagia Sophia. Source: Arild Vågen / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

The equivalent status quo site for the former Constantinople  is Hagia Sophia, the huge structure built first as a church  in 537 CE when the city was the capital of the eastern Roman Empire and then quickly turned into a Mosque with the Ottoman conquest in 1453. It was converted into a museum in 1935 as part of Ataturk’s efforts to secularize and modernize Turkey. For over 80 years that was the status quo, neither Christian or Muslim. That is, until this month when Recep Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist strongman, ‘played to his base’ by converting it back into a Mosque.

I have no insight into the brain of the brutal Erdoğan, but perhaps a part of him pines for the glory that he imagines was the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Jerusalem for some 400 years beginning in 1517. And while a religious conservative like Erdoğan overall has little in common with American liberals like Peter Beinart there may be common ground around what Ottoman rule meant for a place like Jerusalem. For under the Ottomans, Jerusalem — and the Temple Mount — belonged to neither the Jews nor the Palestinians, an outcome that Beinart seems to be advocating for with his recent embrace of the idea of a binational state.

The Ottoman Empire, of course, had much more than two nations within its borders. It was a creature that was common in the world before the conclusion of WWI in 1918, but that has disappeared since — the multinational empire. Like its rival the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose capital of Vienna the Ottomans besieged repeatedly (and always unsuccessfully) the Ottoman Empire was not defined by any one nationality or ethnic group, even though its original homeland was clearly Turkish and the Empire’s dominant religion was clearly Islam. 

There’s a reason why empires disappeared and were replaced (mostly) by the kind of nation-states — Germany for the Germans, France for the French, Egypt for the Egyptians — we know today. Those multinational empires did not do a very good job of expressing the aspirations of the people who lived under them. But they did do a pretty good job of keeping the ethnic peace within their borders. While they lasted.

There’s a wave in academic scholarship that is seeking to resurrect the image of life and government under the Ottomans, which traditional Western scholarship has tended to contemn as despotic, degenerate and corrupt (I am, for example, eagerly awaiting the release of Yale environmental historian Alan Mikhail’s upcoming book on the Ottomans). These revisionist historians have a lot to say that’s worth listening to. 

But we cannot turn back the clock. We cannot go back to a time when people did not have a way of expressing their national aspirations, when there was not even hardly a whiff of an idea that there could be an independent Israel or a Palestinian state. Peace is indeed what we need, but the kind of turning time back to the multinational-type solution advocated by the Beinarts of the world is simply not the way there.

Neither, for sure, is what Erdoğan did with Hagia Sophia. His breaking of the status quo — of privileging the need of his co-religionists over the feelings of the world’s Christians — borders on the criminal. But it is also a reminder of how powerful national aspirations are in this part of the world and how closely tied those aspirations are tied to religious desire. 

“This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its chains of captivity. It was the greatest dream of our youth,” Erdoğan said in dramatic, emotional words before the reopening, according to the Guardian newspaper. “It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.” 

These words tie nation to religion. That tie is part of almost everything political in this part of the world, even among those who identify as secular. And Beinart’s multinational vision just ignores that tie. In that, it is perhaps as dangerous as is Erdoğan’s land grab of Hagia Sophia. 

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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