Saturday

24th Oct 2020

Feature

The Hagia Sophia and the global battle of symbols

  • On Friday, 24 July 2020 Muslim prayers were held in the Hagia Sophia - for the first time since 1934. A more than symbolic decision (Photo: EUobserver)

Actually, I don't care if the Hagia Sophia is a church, a mosque or a museum.

As a Byzantinist, I am particularly interested in the building as a Byzantine masterpiece and as a place of 1,500 years of history. In addition, the new mosque guests will no doubt not change an inch of the interior.

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As a matter of fact, they hardly changed anything when it was a mosque from 1453 to 1934. Frankly, as long as we can visit the building in all its glory, it does not matter which services are being held inside.

Yet the Turkish decision to restart Islamic worship services since Friday (July 24) is not innocent.

It is above all a symbolic decision, an identitarian decision, one to hurt others. "It pains me," said Pope Francis. That is indeed the intention.

A Turkish Facebook friend wrote to me that this decision indeed symbolised the capture of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II and thus the victory over Christianity. Highlighting this now is continuing an old battle in the form of a symbol battle.

Turkey and its president are not the only ones throwing themselves into an identity war of symbols.

When I visited Cordoba's famous Mosque/Cathedral (known in Spanish as the 'Mequita/Catedral') a few years back, the tickets and nameplates turned out to have changed. The word Mezquita had disappeared. From now on the former mosque no longer existed and the building was only a cathedral.

The priests who walked around in this cathedral, surrounded by a beautiful mosque, also seemed to behave like proud members of the historic Reconquista [Reconquest] period.

And this is in Cordoba, once the capital of Islamic al-Andalus in Spain, and in the year 1,000 the largest city in the western hemisphere.

A battle of symbols also rages in the eastern hemisphere. An example is the infamous Yasukuni shrine, where Japanese soldiers fallen for the country are buried.

Several of them are war criminals, not least in the eyes of China and (South) Korea. The fact that several Japanese prime ministers visited the shrine to show their respect to the so-called Japanese war heroes was time and again a slap in the face of the Chinese and Koreans.

Unnecessary and painful, but symbolic and identitarian.

Waving flags

The strongest growing share in the worldwide battle of symbols, however, has to be flags - which have made a serious comeback.

In Egypt, since president Abdel Fattah Sisi took power, children at school have to salute the flag every morning, even if they are in an international school. School inspectors in Egypt are more concerned with checking the salute to the flag than the quality of education.

It is also interesting to see that - at least in the Middle East - the size of flags increases as freedom and democracy diminish.

The symbolic value of flags, on the other hand, seems to become more negative.

In the United States, there has been a real flag battle for several years between the official flag of the US (the stars spangled banner) and the Confederate flag. The latter was the flag of the South in the American Civil War and mainly symbolises slavery and racism.

The fact that several official buildings in the south of the US still only hang the Confederate flag is mainly a symbolic middle-finger to the black population there.

Flags also seem to be gaining significance in Europe. In Belgium for example, last week, the mayor of the Walloon village of Trois-Pont had a Flemish Lion flag at a youth camp removed by the police to "avoid provocation".

To the regret of some, the Flemish Lion flag has acquired an increasingly negative connotation in recent years (or decades). That's not the case at all for most other flags. Nobody is bothered by the flag of West Flanders, for example.

It shows that a symbol that becomes part of an ideological struggle loses its universally-uniting force.

But let's go back to Hagia Sophia. How should we deal with this now?

We actually have a simple choice: go along in this symbolic battle, or decide to do the opposite and make a symbolic reconciliation gesture instead.

Why not decide to turn that other important symbol between West and East, between Islam and Christianity, the symbol of the Reconquista, the Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba into a museum now?

A stronger signal is almost impossible. In any case, it would send the signal to the Turkish president: you may try to dig up the hatchet in Istanbul, but we will bury it again in Cordoba.

It would be a symbolic gesture saying that the struggle between Islam and Christianity is one of a distant past, both in the Middle East and in Europe. Therefore, as a gesture, it would not only be symbolic, but a reflection of everyday reality.

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