The Hagia Sophia and Erdogan's Ottoman Ambition


This briefing is provided by a friend of RZIM.

The announcement made by President Tayyip Erdogan in July 2020 which changed the function of the Hagia Sophia, until recently a museum, into a mosque came as a shock to many commentators, journalists and observers. The Hagia Sophia had been one of the most recognisable Cathedrals in Medieval Christendom from its founding in the 6th Century. It acted not just as a symbol of devotion and identity, but also as a signal of the wealth and majesty of the inheritors of the Roman Empire: the Byzantine Emperors. The final fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 brought an end to an Empire which had been teetering on the precipice of destruction for much of the previous five hundred years and the Hagia Sophia’s repurposing as a mosque following Constantinople’s capture was the ultimate signal of Byzantine humiliation and destruction. The destruction of the Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire following the First World War brought secular democracy under Mustafa Kemal ‘Attaturk’ to Turkey and the Hagia Sophia’s repurposing as a museum. For the last eighty-six years, it has remained as such. Why is this apparently sudden change so important?


  • The population of Turkey is approximately 82 million (Anon, 2020)
  • Its GDP (as at 2019) is $754 billion with a GDP per Capita of $9,140
  • Life expectancy is approximately 77.2 years.
  • According to the World Bank, since 2000, Turkey’s “economic and social development…has been impressive, leading to increased employment and incomes and making Turkey an upper-middle-income country.”
  • Poverty has more than halved between 2002-2015 and the country has urbanised rapidly over the same period
  • It has given refuge to approximately 3.6 million Syrians fleeing the conflict in the Levant.
  • However, there is growing international concern about the direction of travel of the Erdogan government.
  • There is growing unemployment and rising inflation which, along with concerns about Erdogan himself, has significantly slowed international investment into the country.
  • It has slipped slightly in the international education rankings from 34 to 35 over the past five years.
  • Until international pressure stopped it, Turkey was the only country buying oil from ISIS-control areas. (Yayla and Clarke, 2018)
  • Tayyip Erdogan has been in effective control of the country since 2003, first as Prime Minister and then President. He is the leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) which is described as “Islamist-rooted” (Anon, 2018)
  • Erdogan survived an attempted coup by the followers of his former mentor, Fetullah Gulen (leader of the Hizmet Movement) in 2016, since which he has ruthlessly stamped out Hizmet activities and rounded up Hizmet followers. He continues to seek extradition for Gulen from the US back to Turkey.
  • One-fifth of the Turkish population are Kurdish and their fight for an independent state has been a cause of conflict in the east of the country since well before Erdogan came to power.

Tayyip Erdogan has never made any secret of his desire to re-create the Ottoman Caliphate. Other than speeches praising the Ottoman Empire in his home region of Anatolia (in eastern Turkey), he has made the case for a new Ottoman Empire as the basis for bringing peace to the Levant region infront of a number of international audiences.

His latest action: the change of function of the Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque is therefore entirely in keeping with Erdogan’s general direction of travel. The move is a reminder to his internal supporters that he is continuing the task of Islamification which brought him to power in the first place. At the same time his action with the Hagia Sophia increases his capital in relation to his Islamic legitimacy with other Islamic nations. The timing of such a move is significant, for, at the same moment as the Gulf monarchies, including Saudi Arabia (but not Qatar) are seeking foreign investment by introducing (at least theoretically), secular reforms, Erdogan is moving in the opposite direction. There is a good reason for this. If Erdogan is to fulfil his dream of recreating the Ottoman Empire it needs to have something upon which to base its legitimacy. It cannot claim to be the defender of the Holy Places of Sunni Islam: they are under the control of the Saudi regime. Erdogan therefore needs to find other sources of legitimacy to propel his dream into reality. The Ottoman Empire rested its legitimacy on the doctrine of the Sword (that the mightiest ruler in the Islamic world should be its leader) and the rather shaky claim that the Ottoman Caliphs were the direct descendants of the last legitimate Abbasid Caliph. Neither of these options is open to Erdogan, so instead he appears to be using his support of Salafi causes and internal Islamification as the basis for a legitimacy based upon piety. This is entirely in keeping with early Sunni Muslim leadership and feeds directly into Erdogan’s Salafi instincts.

Yet even as he progresses his agenda, Erdogan’s position is not unassailable, for he appears to be loosing the Turkish youth: a constituency he has consistently courted. This is partly due to the economic pressures resulting from COVID-19, but, as the data above highlights, there had been growing economic woes in Turkey even before COVID-19 struck. Furthermore, increasing frustration with the lack of free speech has also become a serious issue for Gen Zers and this has been coupled with growing frustration with an education system which is being deemed ‘not fit for purpose’ insofar as it is not seen to be preparing the youth for the competitive jobs market.

The growing disillusionment with President Erdogan became quickly apparent in an online livestream event on YouTube. The live feed quickly had the hashtag ‘#Novotesforyou’ trending and negative comments poured in so quickly that Erdogan’s media team rapidly disabled the comments option. (Tremblay, 2020)

This loss of support amongst Gen Z who have grown up under his government (and many of which come from AKP-supporting households) is a serious issue for Erdogan. Gen Zers currently account for 15.6% of the overall population. Loss of support amongst them therefore has potentially catastrophic implications for any future elections he might hold. A point manifested clearly in the crushing defeat that the AKP received in the local elections in 2019.

Yet, the weakening of his internal popularity and his growing isolation from Western international institutions as a result of his actions in relation to buying oil from ISIS, his support of the Muslim Brotherhood and his crackdown on dissent, do not seem to be uppermost in his mind. In her book Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks Jenny White (of Stockholm University) notes that Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP have long sought to restore the power and respect which they believe is due to Turkey that, in their minds, had been reduced under Mustafa Kemal’s secularising policies. Commenting on the re-opening of the Hagia Sophia as a mosque White commented “Opening Hagia Sophia to Muslim prayer is a political act, a symbolic enactment of nationalist identity, an act of reverse conquest and of vengeance against the secular West…” (Zaman, 2020)

It will be fascinating to see what happens next. Jenny White is one of a number of academics who believe what President Erdogan has done with the Hagia Sophia is a prelude to declaring a new Ottoman Caliphate. It is noticeable that the newly made huge carpet which covered the floor of the Hagia Sophia had one square deliberately cut out of it. That square exposed the ‘Omphalion’ which was the spot on in the Hagia Sophia upon which the Byzantine Emperors were crowned. Perhaps the preparation for a coronation.

Yet Erdogan’s ambitions to be the new Caliph might yet be thwarted.

His taking of the title ‘Caliph’ does not mean that he will be recognised as such. For him to be acknowledged he will need to be so by Muslims around the world, both communities and states, as well as by the wider international community. That is something over which he has no control other than the tools of democracy open to all political leaders. Furthermore, his internal popularity, the basis of his power, is also on the wane as we have seen.

So, it maybe that, in reaching for his ultimate goal, he will be undone as the foundation upon which he stands crumbles away. However, if he is able to squash opposition and extend his diplomatic reach through the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and get some form of acknowledgement for his ‘Caliphate’, it is possible that he might succeed. Should he do so and continue to extend his influence in the Levant, a new era of ‘the Caliphate’ could be about to dawn.

Anon, (2020) ‘Turkey Overview’ 16th April
Anon (2018) ‘Turkey country profile’ 10th July
Tremblay, Pinar (2020) ‘Why can’t Erdogan win over Generation Z?’ 14th July
Yayla, Ahmet and Colin Clarke (2018) ‘Turkey’s Double ISIS Standard’ 12th April
Zaman, Amberin (2020) ‘Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia holds first Friday prayers since reconversion to mosque’ 24th July