The Great Turkish Forgery


A Turkish court has confirmed the government can convert Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque. Not an unexpected decision given Turkey’s political climate.

I’m sure the folks at UNESCO are not happy, given that they weren’t consulted on this change to a world heritage site. It really is Turkey’s decision tough, but…

…given the importance of the building to world heritage, should others’ input be considered? Does the Turkish government have an obligation to listen?

Like millions of people I have visited the Hagia Sophia. For a thousand years (more or less) it was a Christian church. There is a rich heritage displayed in frescoes on the walls. It would be too bad if, in the re-conversion to a a mosque (which the building was for almost 500 years) the Turks would destroy that artwork.IMG_3549

I like to think that wouldn’t happen, that the offending artwork would be concealed so as not to offend Muslim worshipers, but not destroyed. But I remember the ancient Buddha statues in Afghanistan, also a UNESCO world heritage site, and what happened to them.

What Turkey does to its heritage buildings is its own business. I admit to be mildly saddened at the decision – as I am sure Turks would have been at any campaign to return the Hagia Sophia to its original use as a place for Christian worship. (That’s probably an understatement of the reaction.)

It is the government justification for the change that baffles me. Not being Turkish, I need an explanation of how this happened. It has me wondering about the ability of the average Turk to believe the impossible. Or maybe it is a reflection on the iron grip the president has on his country – questioning him can be bad for your health.

One of the key legal points in the change was that the original documents from 1934 converting the Hagia Sophia to a museum were forged. Specifically that the signature of then president Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, was forged.IMG_3591

Sounds like a great justification – but it defies logic. But I haven’t seen any Turkish media (or other media) mentioning the problem. Maybe everyone is too polite to mention it – but I am not.

The Hagia Sophia is probably the best known building in Turkey, one of the most famous in the world. Can you tell me how, even in 1934, it could have its status change from mosque to museum based on a forgery?

In 1934 Kemal Ataturk had been president of Turkey for 11 years. He would die in office four years later. If there was any doubt he gave the order for the change, don’t you think someone would have asked him? The person behind creating the museum would have been executed if the president hadn’t been behind it. IMG_3485

My guess is it wasn’t the most popular of moves. Muslims, Turkey’s majority, would have been resentful. The Christian minority was probably lobbying for a return to cathedral status. Making the building a museum seems to me to be a smart compromise – everybody’s second choice.

But there’s no way any documents were forged to make it happen. There’s no logic in that story. It was probably the most scrutinized move of the year, no chance it wasn’t done right.

I guess though that this isn’t a logical issue. People believe what they want to believe. i don’t know what the court thought of the forgery claim, but the Turkish president has what he wants, and as of July 24 the Hagia Sophia will be a mosque once more.

It’s a political win – not that dictators really need to think about such things.

What about you? Does the situation impact you in any way? The comments section is open.



  1. […] wrote two posts in 2020 about Hagia Sophia and the Turkish move, but it was this one that people were reading. There were official assurances that visitors would […]

  2. Stephen Martin · · Reply

    Yes, it seems to me they have been frustrated in their attempts to be part of the EU and have now thrown their hat into another ring.

  3. jessepfrancis · · Reply

    It’s a statement, it’s a statement made to the whole world. I am reminded of one of Bob Woodward’s pieces here exposing Libyan government’s “people centred” rule.[1] Democracy makes us blind, the leaders for the thirst of popularity, vote and power, people by the vanity of love by politicians and us outsiders from the real stakeholders’ (people) perspectives.

    And the story is similar elsewhere. A mosque turning into a temple [2], a church threatened to choose between vacating or perishing – why even, Christian churches fighting against each other, forging documents for land and properties.[3] I’m just talking about last one year here in India, hence not too surprised by this move.

    1. Sobering thoughts. It is indeed a statement to the world. Ten years from now it may be one they wish they hadn’t made.

      1. jessepfrancis · ·

        Oh, I doubt that. Long as their perspective is winning, they would not regret a thing. We have managed to rot democracy to its core.

      2. You may be right. But in my experience politicians frequently forget the long term. Turkey’s economy has been battered in recent years, partly caused by picking needless fights with the west. If things get worse this could be a rallying cry for the opposition calling for a return to the principles Ataturk espoused in founding the country.

  4. Stephen Martin · · Reply

    Seems like the Hagia Sophia has always been a symbol of the ruling power, be that Christian, secular state or Muslim. Seems to me like a pretty clear message about where Turkey has chosen to fit in the world.

    1. Agreed. They may as well withdraw their EU membership application. No way the present Turkish administration has a hope of being accepted.

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