On July 10, 2020, a Turkish court cleared the way for the Hagia Sophia to be converted from a museum back into a mosque. That same day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivered a speech lauding the “resurrection” of the Hagia Sophia. No full English transcript of that speech has been made available, although a video with English subtitles is available here.
Below is transcription of those subtitles, checked against the original Turkish to correct mistakes and clarify phrasing. (Credit to Bradley Davis for the transcription and Nicholas Danforth for translation.)
My dear nation, I extend to you my most heartfelt greetings and affection. The Council of State today annulled the 1934 Cabinet Decree which had enabled the Hagia Sophia’s conversion from a mosque to a museum. Based on that ruling we have issued a presidential decree to facilitate the reopening of the Hagia Sophia mosque. Thus, after 86 years the Hagia Sophia will be able to start serving as a mosque once again as stated in the foundation charter of Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan. I wish this decision to be auspicious to our nation, the ummah, and all of humanity. Our Ministry of Culture and Tourism has immediately begun to work on the administrative and technical preparations with our Presidency of Religious Affairs on religious aspects of the matter.
With the termination of its status as a museum entrance to the Hagia Sophia will be free of charge. Like all of our mosques the doors of the Hagia Sophia will be wide open to all — locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims. Under its new status, the Hagia Sophia, a common heritage of humanity, will continue to embrace everyone in a more sincere and authentic manner. By completing the preparations quickly we plan to open the Hagia Sophia to worship on Friday, July 24, 2020 with the Friday prayer service.
I call on everyone to respect the decision that our country’s judicial and executive bodies have made regarding the Hagia Sophia. Surely, we will welcome all kinds of views voiced on this matter in the international arena. However, to what purpose Hagia Sophia will be utilized is a matter of Turkey’s sovereign rights. Opening Hagia Sophia for worship following a new regulation is merely an exercise of our country’s sovereign rights. Converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque in line with its foundation charter is no less a right of the Republic of Turkey’s than its flag, its capital, its adhan, its language, its borders, and its 81 provinces. In this regard, we view any behavior or statement which goes beyond the voicing of opinions, as a violation of our independence. Just as we as Turkey do not interfere in decisions on places of worship in other countries, we expect the same understanding about us protecting our historical and legal rights. Moreover, this right dates back exactly 567 years ago, not just 50 or 100 years. If today a faith-oriented discussion is to be held the topic of that discussion should be not Hagia Sophia but Islamophobia and xenophobia increasing with each passing day in all parts of the world. Turkey’s decision is solely related to its own domestic laws and historical rights. I express my gratitude to all political parties and leaders, non-governmental organizations, and every individual of our nation who stand behind this decision.
My dear nation, the conquest of Istanbul and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a Mosque are among the most glorious chapters in Turkish history. On 29 May 1453, Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan entered the city after a long siege and headed directly to the Hagia Sophia. As the Byzantines awaited their fate, afraid and apprehensive, inside the Hagia Sophia, Fatih entered the Hagia Sophia, giving assurances to the people regarding their lives and freedoms. The Conqueror of Istanbul, as a symbol of the conquest, hoisted his flag at the mihrab in the middle of the Hagia Sophia, shot an arrow towards the dome, and recited the first adhan. Thus, he registered his conquest. Then, in a suitable corner of the Hagia Sophia, he performed two rak’ahs of prayer out of gratitude. With this move, he demonstrated that he had converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Sultan Mehmed carefully examined this great place of worship, Istanbul’s pearl, from its floor to its roof.
According to historians, Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan who climbed to the dome of the Hagia Sophia, recited the following famous Farsi poem upon encountering the building and its surroundings in ruin. “A spider spins its web in the palace of the caesars, an owl hoots in the towers of Afrasiab.” Yes, Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan had taken over such a devastated, worn-out, and miserable Istanbul and Hagia Sophia. Essentially, the Hagia Sophia, which Fatih took over, had been built for the third time, since the first two churches which stood on the same spot were burned and destroyed during the times of turmoil. After the conquest, with three days of hard work, the Hagia Sophia was prepared for worship — for the first Friday prayer. Fatih, who entered the mosque with leading statesmen and soldiers was welcomed with praise and salutations that resonated from the domes. Fatih then performed the sermon of the first Friday prayer in the Hagia Sophia and his mentor, Akshamsaddin, led the prayer services. Fatih also enabled the development of the Orthodox Church which had been excluded by other Christian sects, by bringing them under his auspices. The domes and walls of this great place of worship have resonated with adhan, takbirs, and mawlids for 481 years since then. Istanbul, which had been devastated by earthquakes, fires, looting, and neglect for centuries, was once again brought back on its feet with the conquest. The symbol of this process was the Hagia Sophia.
After Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan, every sultan strived to make Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia even more beautiful. The Hagia Sophia, which was designated as the Great Mosque of the city, has been transformed into a complex, with buildings that were added in time and served believers for centuries. In almost every century that followed, the Hagia Sophia went through major repairs to further beautify it with additions and is regarded as our nation’s precious gem. So much so that we did not even attempt to change its original name which means the “Wisdom of God”. This temple, which was about to be crushed under the collapsing ruins of an old state was not only transformed into a mosque by our ancestors but it was also exalted and revived.
Therefore, for centuries, the Hagia Sophia has had a special place in the hearts of all the members of this nation. As for ourselves, we also had a love of Hagia Sophia in our hearts since we were young. We believe that we have provided an important service to our nation by reopening this mosque, in accordance with its foundation charter. While the conquest was the minor struggle [jihad] the development construction, and charity activities of the Hagia Sophia were the greater struggles [jihad].
As the Hagia Sophia was being built during the Eastern Roman period, materials were transported from across the empire — from Egypt to Izmir and from Syria to Balikesir. Fatih and the sultans who came after brought the craftsmen from all over Anatolia and Rumelia to Istanbul and rebuilt both the Hagia Sophia and the city. In doing so, they made the most of the legacy they had taken over. For example, Fatih preserved the fixes mosaics in the Hagia Sophia and only removed movable statues from the building. Mosaics that remained in place for centuries were covered gradually during subsequent repairs, thereby protecting them from external influences and ensuring that they survived until the present day. Viewing the members of different beliefs with tolerance is fundamentally an attitude essential to our religion.
Our Prophet, while continuing his message did not interfere with communities from other religions that did not commit aggression against Muslims. When the caliph Omar took Jerusalem, he protected the Christians and Jews in the city with their rights and places of worship. Like all the states established by our ancestors, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire followed the same path. What Fatih and his followers did in Istanbul consisted of following this ancient tradition. Mimar Sinan, one of the most important figures in our civilization’s history, is one of the top contributors to the Hagia Sophia. In 481 years, the Hagia Sophia became what it is today with its altar, pulpit, minarets, sultan’s throne, plates, embroideries, chandeliers, carpets, fountain, and all other elements. With the most crowded congregations of Istanbul, that have gathered through history, the Hagia Sophia has been a piece of truly spectacular scenes during exceptional days such as Tarawih, Laylat al-Qadr, and Eid. Therefore, the Turkish nation’s right to the Hagia Sophia is no less than that of the first builders of this work approximately 1,500 years ago.
On the contrary, because of its contributions and strong ownership, our nation has more rights over the Hagia Sophia which is considered as one of the most important works of human heritage today. With the conquest, Istanbul became a city where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in peace and tranquility. History is the witness of the great struggles we made to ensure that prosperity, trust, peace, and tolerance prevailed everywhere we conquered. Today, besides our mosques in every corner of our country, there are thousands of historical shrines of every faith. In addition, churches and synagogues operate wherever there are congregations. There are currently 435 churches and synagogues open for worship in our country. This situation, which cannot be encountered in other geographies, is the manifestation of our understanding which sees differences as richness. However, as a nation, we have not been able to escape examples of the very opposite treatment in our recent history. In Eastern Europe and the Balkan geography, where the Ottomans had to withdraw, only a few of the works built by our ancestors for centuries are still standing. Based on the phrase that “a negative example cannot set a precedent,” we do not take any of these bad examples into consideration and we are resolutely maintaining the stance of our own civilization, which is based on construction and revival.
My dear nation, the debate over the Hagia Sophia, which is once again in the spotlight today, due to the decision to reopen it to worship, is nearly a century old. During the time when Anatolia and Istanbul were under occupation, there were discussions about turning the Hagia Sophia into a church. As the first step toward this goal fully equipped occupying troops arrived at the doors of the Hagia Sophia. The French commanders of the troops informed the Ottoman officer assigned to the Hagia Sophia that they would take control of it and that Turkish soldiers must leave the mosque.
Major Tevfik Bey, who defended the Hagia Sophia with his soldiers, gave them the following answer: “You cannot and will not enter here because this is our place of worship. If you are going to attempt to enter by force, our first response will be with heavy machine guns, and then the demolition charges that were placed in the four corners of the mosque. If you can afford the collapse of the Hagia Sophia onto your heads, you can try to enter.” He thus crushed the invaders’ hopes of taking the Hagia Sophia. Foreigners maintained an interest in the Hagia Sophia in the following years, hiding behind various excuses such as repairing the mosaics.
Meanwhile the single-party era government closed the Hagia Sophia to worship in line with a new decree that required mosques to be at least 500 meters apart from one another. Later, on February 1, 1935, the Hagia Sophia was instated as a museum and opened to visitors. During the years, when the Hagia Sophia was closed to the worship, the heirloom was exposed to neglect and pillaged. The Hagia Sophia Madrasah, the first Ottoman university in Istanbul built by Fatih adjacent to the mosque, was destroyed without reason. Rare carpets laid on the floor of the Hagia Sophia were cut and distributed here and there. Antique chandeliers were taken to the foundry to be melted. Masterpiece plates that were still in place could not be moved out through the door because they are very large and were therefore moved to the warehouse. These plates were later hung on their respective spots on the wall during the Democratic Party period. The destruction suffered by Hagia Sophia is not limited to these. Those who wanted nothing left of the time when the Hagia Sophia was a mosque would even have demolished its minaret.
As a matter of fact, the minaret of Little Hagia Sophia which was converted into a mosque during the reign of Sultan Bayezid II was destroyed overnight without any legal basis. Historian, journalist, and museologist Ibrahaim Hakki Konyali, who saw that the time had come for the Hagia Sophia immediately wrote and published a report. They then decided not to tear down the minarets since Konyali said in his report, “These minarets are the support of the dome if they are taken down, the Hagia Sophia will collapse.” In the same period, similar disasters happened to many mosques, madrasahs, and relics of our ancestors.
Actually, this decision taken during the single-party period was not only betraying history but was also against the law. Because the Hagia Sophia is neither the property of the state nor any institution but a property of a trust, when Faith conquered Istanbul, he also earned the title of the Roman Emperor and therefore had all the rights of ownership over the property of the Byzantine dynasty. According to this law, the ownership of Hagia Sophia was given to Fatih and the foundation established by him. During the Republican period, an official copy of this deed was prepared in the new Latin letters and issued to officially register its legal status. If Fatih did not hold the deed for the Hagia Sophia, he would not have the right to endow it legally.
In one of the pages of his foundation charter, which is hundreds of pages long, dated 1st June, 1453 and including the Hagia Sophia, Fatih Sultan Mehmed Khan said, “He who changes my foundation, which covers this Hagia Sophia into a mosque, attempts to alter, annul or amend one of its articles, if he means to abolish the foundation charter of the Hagia Sophia mosque, with malicious or malignant intention or deceit, changes the original, challenges its provisions and guides and helps those who do it, unlawfully uses it, terminates its status as a mosque and arranges forged documents, and requests trustee rights, or records it in his own invalid account book or transfers it to his own account, I express before you, that he has committed the greatest sin. The eternal curse of Allah, the Prophet, the angels, all the rulers, and even all Muslims shall be on those who change this testament, let their torments not be alleviated, and their faces not looked at on the Day of Judgement. Anyone who still continues with this change after hearing these, the sin shall belong to the one who changed it. Allah’s punishment is upon them. Allah is all-hearing, all-knowing.”
Yes, the decision taken today has allowed us to get rid of the heavy curse that Fatih has put forth over his foundation. Then again, instead of ending Hagia Sophia’s sorrow, the same mentality can still propose turning Sultan Ahmet, Istanbul’s most famous mosque, into a museum. In the past, this mentality had thought of utilizing the Sultan Ahmet Mosque as a picture gallery. Yildiz palace as a casino, and the Hagia Sophia as a jazz club, of which some have already been done. As in every period, today’s perspective is a manifestation of an outdated understanding under the guise of modernity. It is the product of the same logic to demand the Vatican be converted into a museum and insist that the Hagia Sophia remain as a museum. The next step would be the desire of turning the Kaaba, the oldest temple of worship of humanity, and the ancient temple of Masjid al-Aqsa into a museum. I say may Allah protect our country and humanity forever from this mentality. I say may Allah not test this nation again with those who are hostile to their values.
My dear nation, there are some artifacts that are symbols of nations and states. One of these symbols is the Hagia Sophia. In an article he wrote in 1922, Yahya Kemal said, “This state has two spiritual foundations: that the adhan Fatih recited from the Hagia Sophia’s minaret still resonates and that the Qur’an Selim recited before the Prophet’s cloak still resonates…”
Again, in the words of Yahya Kemal, the meaning of the Hagia Sophia for our nations is as follows, “Once upon a time, judging by your geometry, I thought you were only a monument. Now, while looking at this multitude under your dome, I feel like I have entered the enchanting climes of the ancestors I have been dreaming and missing for years.”
Unfortunately, this temple, which the poet described as “the enchanting climes of the ancestors” was deprived of the voice of adhan and the recitation of the Holy Quran for a long time. Although the worshipping part of the Hagia Sophia allocated for the Sultan was first opened for worship in 1980 and again in 1991 due to the main structure it had remained destitute. Almost all of our intellectual and artistic people have lamented the destitution of the Hagia Sophia in their writings and speeches. The late Necip Fazil Kisakurek reveals his belief in this matter by saying, “those who doubt whether Turks will remain in this country also doubt whether the Hagia Sophia will be open.”
Today, we are answering the call of the master, “The Hagia Sophia should be opened, it should be opened along with the blocked fortune of Turks.” The poem of Nazim Hikmet on the conquest of Istanbul and the conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque is also very stunning. “This is the most honorable day that Islam has been looking forward to, Greek Constantinople has become Turkish Istanbul, the leader of an army against the world, the Sultan of the Turks, like the opening of the sky, on the gray horse from Edirnekapi, he conquered Istanbul in eight weeks and three days — what a happy, blessed servant of Allah. The sultan who conquered the city, Allah accepted his greatest prayer and enabled him to perform afternoon prayer in Hagia Sophia.”
Another historian and poet Nihal Atsiz was asked, “If you were born again, what would you like to be?” He says, “I would like to be an imam in Hagia Sophia.”
When our world historian Halil Inalcik said, “The West never forgot the conquest of Istanbul and Hagia Sophia,” he was actually trying to explain to us that this was a supra-political issue. As one of the top names of our literature, Peyami Safa said, “Making Hagia Sophia a museum has not eliminated the ambitions of Christianity on Istanbul but on the contrary encouraged, provoked and excited them.”
An article titled Hagia Sophia, which resulted in its author, Osman Yuksel Serdengecti, facing the death penalty, ended with the following: “Hagia Sophia! O, magnificent temple. Do not worry, the grandchildren of Fatih will overthrow all the idols and convert you into a mosque. They will perform ablution with their tears and prostrate. Tahlils and takbirs will replenish your empty domes and there will be a second conquest. The bards will write the epic of this, and the adhan will declare that the tekbirs rising from the silent and orphaned minarets will be echoed in the skies, your minaret balconies will light up in honor of Allah and his Prophet Mohammed. The whole world will think that Fatih has resurrected. This will be Hagia Sophia, this will be a second conquest, the new resurrection. This is definite. These days are close. Maybe tomorrow, maybe sooner than tomorrow…”
Praise be it, we’ve got those tomorrows. One of the most prominent poems about the grief of Hagia Sophia belongs to Arif Nihat Asya, “Oh great temple, why are you covered with sorrow like this? Tell us about the age of Fatih even a little bit. We were lined up five times a day under your calming dome with your adhans, you had an invitation yesterday. O my temple, let them be ashamed those who close and not open you.”
This is the kind of embarrassment from which Turkey saved itself today. Today, Hagia Sophia is having another resurrection, many of which it has witnessed since its construction. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia heralds the liberation of the al-Aqsa Mosque. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the footsteps of the will of Muslims across the world to come out of the interregnum. The resurrection of Hagia Sophia is the reignition of the fire of hope of not just Muslims but together with them of all the oppressed, wronged, downtrodden and exploited. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia demonstrates that the Turkish nation, Muslims, and all of humanity still have something new to tell the world. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia represents our memory full of heydays in our history: from Badr to Manzikert, from Nicopolis to Gallipoli. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia is the proof of our commitment to protect the trusts of our martyrs and the wounded — if necessary, by paying the price even if it costs our lives. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia is a heartfelt greeting to the symbolic cities of our civilization from Bukhara to Andalusia. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia is required by our respect and commitment to all of our ancestors from Alparslan to Mehmed and Abdulhamid. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia not only honors Sultan Mehmed’s spirit of conquest but also revives anew the spirituality of Akshamsaddin and the aesthetics and taste of Sinan the Architect in the depths of our hearts. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of the re-rise of our civilization’s sun on the basis of justice conscience, morality, tawheed and brotherhood and sisterhood which humanity awaits longingly. The resurrection of the Hagia Sophia is to break the chains and locks on the doors of this place of worship as well as the shackles on all hearts and feet.
Seventy years after the adhan’s return to its original version, the reinstatement of Sultan Mehmed’s trust, the Hagia Sophia, as a mosque is an overdue recovery. It is the strongest answer ever given to the brutal attacks against our symbols and values across the Islamic world. Turkey, with all steps taken in recent years has demonstrated that it is the subject rather than the object of time and space. With its historic struggle, our nation builds a bridge between the past and the future, embracing all of humanity for the sake of the bright future of the civilization that we represent. Inshallah, we will continue to walk on this sacred path without pause nor hesitation, without giving up, through perseverance, sacrifice, and determination, until we reach our ultimate destination.
Once again, I hope that the court ruling and the presidential decree which facilitated the Hagia Sophia’s reinstatement as a mosque, will be auspicious. I would like to stress once again that we will open the Hagia Sophia to worship as a mosque, whilst preserving its qualities as part of humanity’s shared cultural heritage. I extend my love and respect to you all. I am thankful to my lord. Take care.