The Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey Image Credit: Nilesh Raje

In 1453, at the peak of the Ottoman Empire’s power, Sultan Mehmed conquered Constantinople, the celebrated capital of the Byzantine empire. The city was renamed Istanbul, and the sultan became Mehmed Al Fatih, which means the conqueror.

One of his first initiatives was to convert the magnificent cathedral Hagia Sophia into a mosque, much to the dismay of the neighbouring Christian nations. But they could not do much; after all the Ottomans were a superpower.

Hagia Sophia was built in 537AD during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. For 900 years, it was the central church of the Greek Orthodox, the official religion of the Byzantines. New emperors would be crowned in Hagia Sophia.

In 1935, nearly 500 years after capturing Constantinople and following the fall of the Ottoman state after the First World War and the establishment of a secular republic, the founder of modern Turkey Kemal Ataturk took the bold decision to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum. It attracts more than 3 million visitors every year.

When populist leaders lose popular support, they tend to stir up internal or external conflicts, or both in Erdogan’s case, to get people to fall in line. Here is where Hagia Sophia comes.

- Mohammed Almezel, Editor at Large, Gulf News

The Ottoman rulers were despots; they were not religious zealots. But many of their subjects were. The sultans needed their support to ensure authoritarian rule. They had to keep the clerics happy. One way was to turn one of the prized jewels of the Christian crown into a mosque. It was a populist move to please the right-wing hardliners.

Hagia Sophia remained out of the news for decades, until two weeks ago, when it was reported that Turkey’s neo-Ottoman leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to make the historical edifice a mosque again.

An Islamist, albeit with clear nationalist and authoritarian tendencies, Erdogan became prime minister in 2003 and served until 2014 when he took over the presidency. Until then, the president’s office was mostly ceremonial, according to the country’s parliamentary system. However, he forced a change in the constitution in 2017 to make the presidency an executive post that enjoys vast, mostly unchecked powers. Erdogan became the new sultan. Next stop was to be the conqueror — another Al Fatih. Here’s where his world began to fall apart.

Erdogan loves history. He likes to invoke history in almost all his public speeches — mainly the Ottoman history. As an Islamist with strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, he is naturally fond of that history. Early in his presidency, he chose another history buff as a prime minister — Professor Ahmet Davutoglu, whose famous book, Strategic Depth, became a hit among the rising neo-Ottoman establishment. Davutoglu’s ‘neo-Ottoman’ idea envisaged a greater role for Turkey in the Middle East (which was under the Ottoman rule for centuries) and the world. To attain that, he proposed a proactive foreign policy with “zero problems with the neighbours”. He believed Turkey could be an Ottoman-like power by winning over the Muslims through soft power. Erdogan liked the idea — the first half of the idea precisely. He is a partisan bully who used arm-twisting techniques in most of his political life. The two parted ways, and Davutoglu has since become his former friend and ally’s most vocal opponent.

Bid to expand Turkey’s influence in the region

Erdogan wanted it all, acting like a schoolyard bully domestically and regionally — jailing opponents and attacking neighbouring countries.

Over the past decade, he has been trying to expand Turkey’s influence in the region to create his imaginary empire. He soon realised those ideas don’t work. Faced with sceptical neighbours, who grew suspicious of his not-so-friendly intentions, the Turkish leaders started using Islamist proxies to stir conflicts, like in Syria but thankfully failed in Egypt.

He bizarrely got Turkey involved in the Libyan quagmire. He sent arms and mercenaries to support the extremist militia-dominated government of Fayez Al Sarraj. At the same time, Erdogan began a large offensive across the Iraqi border, claiming that Turkey needed to stop attacks by Turkish-Kurd rebels based in northern Iraq. Tension is escalating between Turkey and its western neighbours, Greece and Cyprus, after Ankara started drilling and conducting seismic surveys in the waters south of Cyprus. The European Union reacted by reducing its financial assistance to Turkey and halting high-level talks with Turkish officials.

His domestic support has been waning since the failed June 2016 coup, following which he cleansed the army of the senior secular generals and jailed thousands of opponents, especially in the academia and the media. (Many believe that the coup was staged by Erdogan’s allies in the army to shore up support, but that still is an unproven theory).

Like other populist leaders, Erdogan’s actions suggest that he is increasingly adopting a Machiavellian-type of democracy. He seems to use all means necessary to stay in power and to realise his long-sought dream of being another Mehmed Al Fatih.

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When populist leaders lose popular support, they tend to stir up internal or external conflicts, or both in Erdogan’s case, to get people to fall in line. Here is where Hagia Sophia comes.

As an Islamist, he is keen on making the strong base of his supporters, the religious segment of Turkish society, happy. Since 2013, an influential part of the religious establishment has pushed to turn the Hagia Sophia into a mosque again. It has a nationalist tone too, as most clerics in Turkey have this romantic idea of the Ottoman history.

He has been resisting this to avoid angering the EU. But amid declining support, Erdogan has finally decided to play the Hagia Sophia card. He revived plans to make it a mosque. Russia and Greece, both Greek Orthodox nations, among others have urged him to reconsider.

But the new sultan seems adamant and his plan to convert the Unesco heritage site into a mosque could happen soon. He sees no other way to stay in power. Perhaps, the Turks would call him Recep the Conqueror II. He would love it.