Gifting of Hagia Sophia: An Icon’s Role in Extractive Sacralization

Yagmur Karakaya, Yale University

By investigating the reconversion of Hagia Sophia—the fifteen centuries old monument—to a mosque, I study the sacralisation of politics in authoritarian populisms. In July 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, Erdogan announced the reconversion of the site back into a mosque. This induced anxiety among secular Turks, concerned conservationists and attracted criticism from international institutions such as UNESCO. I argue that in Turkey, the AKP, the ruling conservative party, constantly creates yearnings that only they can answer, whereby reminding people of the deprivation the previous regimes had caused, hence renewing their victim status. The AKP’s authoritarian populism relies on periodic grand gestures to mystify the otherwise mundane. In the case of Hagia Sophia, re-opening the site does not suffice. Through the commemorational mode—the periodic commemorative practices—the re-opening must be kept fresh in the minds of the citizens. These commemorations cultivate yearning and keep reminding the audience that they have been victimized through deprivation of a glorious history by the previous regimes. That is, they rely on extractive sacralisation as they convert victimization to rewards: a promise to be a part of a triumphal quest. Extractive sacralisation gains traction through nostalgia for a practice or space that has been taken away from the people who are the real owners. Yet, every day in the temple complicates the regime’s message as people from different backgrounds experience the site. Some develop a curiosity for the Byzantine mystique, while others’ wonderment is jeopardized through temple’s new status. But it seems, the multi-layered iconicity of the monument is so strong, it pulls both the visitors and the AKP into the realm of the occult, a domain beyond Islamism. Visitors collect and ingest bits of the monument, while the party claims to have discovered the Ark of the Covenant a long lost mystical chest with magical powers.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 205. Performance and Emotions in Contemporary Turkish Politics