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Turkey’s Approaching Crossroads

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has resorted to public spectacles to distract attention from his slipping support and economic mismanagement. But one way or another, fundamental change has become inevitable.

STOCKHOLM – By reconverting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and holding celebratory prayers there for the cameras, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems keen to divert attention from the fact that his country is entering a new phase of acute political and financial turmoil.

The Hagia Sophia dates to the sixth century, and for almost a millennium was one of the Christian world’s most magnificent and well-known churches, carrying forward the traditions of both the Roman and the Byzantine Empires. It was first converted into a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, but was then fashioned into a museum by modern Turkey’s founding father, Kemal Atatürk, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

Atatürk sought to create a secular Turkey that could flourish in the modern world. That required bridging historical divisions, which meant that the Hagia Sophia would be neither a church nor a mosque. As a museum, it would attract visitors from around the world, serving as both an embodiment of Turkish history and a symbol of forward-looking cosmopolitanism.

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