Ataturk and the Question of Hagia Sophia


As clichéd as I may sound by bringing up the comparison, but if there is a modern Salah-ud-din it is Kemal Pasha 

THERE has clearly been a dearth of leadership in Muslim world as a whole since the end of Caliphate in early 20th century. Likes of Muslim brotherhood under Hasan Al Bana in Egypt and Jamaat-e-Islami  under Maulana Maududi  in sub-continent to a large extent tried to fill this vacuum. The Muslim world lives under the nostalgia of golden age of Islam; taking pride in Islamic civilization. Like any student of history, I’m fixed with dates. And if you calculate this ‘golden age’ ended 700 years ago.

As an idea, Islam lost its message. Something did go horribly wrong in between. The closure of reasoning and logic under Imam Ghazali, in his classic philosophy book ‘Incoherence of Philosophers’ draws a point if you have to pick one, where Muslims went wrong.  But I’m not going into that debate; that’s for another day.

While Muslims have been looking for modern Khalid bin Waleeds, they have disowned many of their own, over the course of years, who in turn were hijacked by west from them. One of those distinguished leaders is Mustafa Kemal . And there couldn’t be an apt irony.

In an age of Wikipedia experts, the dissemination of information, mostly inaccurate is so vast and quick that a lie trumpeted continuously by coddled millennials is taken as gospel truth. One such crusty old bird misconstruction is that Mustafa Kemal was  westernized, who converted Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934 to appease west. Nothing can be far from truth than this allegation. It is like a vast number of people in India calling Jawahar Lal Nehru a debauch who slept with white women and died of syphilis.

The Mustafa Kemal story has so many loopholes that you could fly an airplane through.  However, to understand it, we have a go back a little and discern how and why Mustafa Kemal in fact was west’s avowed enemy.

On 13 and 14th November 1918 more than three thousand British, French and Italian troops landed from allied ships on the western coast of Anatolia. The Ottoman government protested against this armistice. The British representative calmly replied that Constantinople had been chosen as British headquarters. The Ottoman official was so humiliated that he didn’t reply. The Bosporus within a short span of time was black with Allied battleships.

Like with Berlin and other cities of Europe, Istanbul was divided into zones by the Allies. French controlling south, Britain Galata and Italians in North.  But why did the Allies put so much weight behind Istanbul?

Imperialism, vengeance and anti-communism were the primary reasons for occupation. The Allies intended to prove that lives lost in Gallipoli were worth the cause. By 1919, the Allies drunk with victory, hoped to inflict worse terms on Ottoman empire than on Germany through Treaty of Versailles. The British prime minister on record said that Istanbul was the hotbed of every Eastern vice.  Lord Curzon — the British general was very clear in his strategy. The idea was to divide Anatolia into tiny nations, so that no Sunni majority existed. It was in this context that Lord Curzon suggested to rebaptize Hagia Sophia. There is always Realpolitik behind Hagia Sophia,  more than the emotion, right from Sultan Mehmet to Lord Curzon to Erdogan.

While Sultans had more or less agreed to the extreme injustices of Allies, young Turks plotted resistance. The hero of Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal Pasha was to be the prime leader who stood up to Western forces. Born in 1881, Kemal had proved his military shrewdness when he routed Allied forces in Gallipoli in 1915. It is probably the only time in recent history when a much advanced western military is defeated by a Muslim general. As clichéd I may sound  by bringing up comparisons, but if there is a modern Salah-ud-din it is Kemal Pasha.

Like most Turks, Mustafa Kemal found occupation insufferable. There is an interesting incident that brings this to point. Once a British officer asked him for a drink in the Pera Palace, Kemal is said to have replied, ‘We are the hosts, they are the guests. It is fitting they must come to my table.’

Growing command over the army by 1919, Kemal rapidly took control of Ottoman territory groups, administration and telegraph wires. The nationalists under Kemal Ataturk united against the Allies. However, Britain did not want Istanbul to come under the control of nationalists — referred to in a derogatory term as ‘Kemalist’.

With British encouragement, the Sultan turned on the nationalists and issued a fatwa against Mustafa Kemal, calling him a traitor who destroyed law and under, forming a private army. Blinded by ego, the Ottoman sultan called Mustafa Kemal a Macedonian unknown mercenary. Notwithstanding the newly found love in sub-continent for grand Viziers and sultans of Ottoman empire, the truth was that they condemned a man to death, who was fighting the nefarious designs of west.

The Ottomans had over the  centuries lost their riches and by early 1800s there were growing fissures among the Viziers and Sultans. As a result Hagia Sophia was reduced to a near ruin.

On 10th August 1920, the Turks were forced to sign the humiliating punitive treaty of Sevres- which literally cut Turkey into pieces; each dog getting its bone. However the treaty of Sevres was just the short in the arm that nationalists required. It became clear that the interim government under Sultan had failed. Between 1921 and 1923 Kemal Mustafa amply gave an indication of his prowess. In the Battle of Sakarya, Turkish nationalists won a decisive victory against the Greeks.  On 13th October 1924 Ankara- Mustafa Kemal’s bastion was declared the capital and in few days a Turkey was proclaimed a republic, with Mustafa Kemal as its first president.

Now that I have tried to explain the actual truth of Kemal Mustafa, let’s understand why did he after all order Hagia Sophia to be converted into a museum. A burning debate in the Muslim world.

I’ve been to Hagia Sophia during my travels in Turkey. The Byzantine Basilica generates awe in its first glimpse. After emperor Justinian ordered its construction, it’s lofty and wide spanned dome symbolized the Cosmos. Amongst many of gilded monuments inside Hagia Sophia, there is one mosaic of Virgin Mary dating back to 867 AD, with winged archangel Gabriel on the right and archangel Michael on left. There is a beautiful ceramic tile panel depicting the Kaaba in Mecca, from 16th century. The intricate Iznik tile work leaves one mesmerized. But what really caught my eye were the monolith marble water jars belonging to 6th and 7th century BC Hellenistic era and the marble door of 6th century AD that separated private chambers of the Emperor from the meeting place for church members. Interestingly Sultan Mehmet and all the Sultans after him retained all these Byzantine footstones within the Hagia Sophia. Nothing was destroyed.

The Ottomans had over the  centuries lost their riches and by early 1800s there were growing fissures among the Viziers and Sultans. As a result Hagia Sophia was reduced to a near ruin. Like any other historic structure it needed maintenance. After proclaiming independence in 1924 Musafa Kemal realized that the empty coffers Sultans had left Turkey with, would not be able to maintain a structure like Hagia Sophia. In his wiseness he thus decided to turn it into a museum so that international organizations fund its maintenance. This is exactly what happened. UNESCO called it a world heritage site and soon Hagia Sophia was the world’s most visited museum.


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Faheem Gundroo

Faheem Jeelani Gundroo is an ICT Engineer based in Dubai, with interest in travel, history and current affairs. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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