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Contesting the Byzantine Past: Four Hagia Sophias as Ideological Battlegrounds of Architectural Conservation in Turkey

The debates over contemporary restoration practices in Turkey have become heated in recent years especially after the reopening of the Hagia Sophias in İznik and Trabzon as mosques. Iconic Byzantine churches that functioned as mosques in the Ottoman period, these monuments had been functioning as museums for decades following the museumification of Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia. Meanwhile, Hagia Sophia in Vize has already been reopened as a mosque without receiving much attention. The repeated statements of Turkish authorities expressing their wish to see Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia function as a mosque raise further concerns. While Turkish authorities try to justify these transformations through the ownership rights of pious endowments and religious freedom, the multi-layered identity of these monuments and their symbolic associations for different groups are commonly ignored. This paper focuses on the recent transformations of four Hagia Sophias in Turkey, which are regarded as ideological battlegrounds by Turkish authorities. Challenging the most symbolic achievements of the secular Republic, the concept of “restoration” is not only used as an instrument to glorify the Ottoman pasts of these monuments but also suppress their Byzantine and Republican pasts. This paper aims to open up a debate on how to intervene in the past, as well as its limits and effects, through the recent histories of four Hagia Sophias.