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NikoBako reads: Dangers of Convenient Universalism: Power Relations and Responsibility of Scholars on the Hagia Sophia — Axel B. Çorlu: “The reconversion of Hagia Sophia is about power…”

23 Dec

I once got into an argument with a Turkish art historian friend of mine after I referred to the eight round canvasses with the first caliphs’ names on them (I think) in Hagia Sophia as “the hideous green billboards”. She, of course, thought they were “cool” or “pastiche-y” or “palimpsest-y”. I thought, and think, that they not only mar the space by covering the joints between the massive square space and the massive dome which are perhaps the most ingenious aspect of this miracle of Roman engineering, but that they were meant to send a clear message of who was now in charge. Hers is a typical “woke” take on these things. In the article below, Axel Çorlu highlights the dangers of such gleefully amoral, post-modern celebrations of funky “conjunctures” and how they essentially elide the historical facts of violence, persecution and appropriation from our picture of the past, and how — in the particular case of Hagia Sophia — these academics end up feeding the discourse of both Ottoman/Muslim triumphalism and the oppression and displacement of religious minorities by the nationalism of the Turkish Republic.

In short, you may want to get past “conquest narratives”; Erdoğan — who justified the reconversion by the “right of conquest” — doesn’t.

My money quotes:

They [Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycıoğlu, titled “Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present”] conclude this section with the heart of their essay: “…in this essay, we would like to divert the conversation and discuss how the conquest narrative, which is shared by those who oppose and support the decision, does not do justice to Hagia Sophia and its architecturally, spiritually, and emotionally charged history.” This sort of interjection, very appealing to the academic mind, nonetheless includes ominous terminology such as “doing justice” to the Hagia Sophia and its “…emotionally charged history.”

This narrative at once establishes the issue of “justice,” not in the sense of the expropriation and destruction of Christian and/or minority populations and the appropriation of their cultural heritage, but as in, “Let us not be unfair to the Ottomans or the Turkish Republic…” and the fact that those who respond to the Hagia Sophia issue might be affected by the same “emotionally charged” aspects. In other words, the authors are guiding us to focus on “justice,” as long as it is to protect the powerful who do not need any protection –there appears to be no need to consider the concept of justice for the dispossessed, whom the Hagia Sophia also symbolizes. […]

While the republican regime was indeed interested in recasting the Ottoman past (usually not in a very bright light, as it also distanced itself from many of its aspects and dictated a highly selective version of its history) and kept busy trying to prove that “Turks” had existed in Anatolia for millennia through the Hittites and other ancient peoples with an eclectic mix of the racial theories and pseudo-science of the time (including the infamous obsession with the morphology and measurements of skulls), it hardly made an effort to understand, teach, or preserve its Byzantine past, let alone “making a claim” to it, if what we mean by “making a claim” is anything more than a possessive but not inclusive approach.

Indeed, the Byzantine past of Turkey remained either buried, neglected, or carefully molded in the public imagination, as nothing more than the “other” that had happened to be there before.At no point did the republic genuinely try to make a direct connection to the Byzantines beyond their role as the adversary in history textbooks, the adversary that had been vanquished, the adversary that had nothing to do with the ethnicity or cultural heritage of the people in Turkey. […]

Beyond its [the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum] practical use as described, it was neither part of a grand historical or intellectual vision, nor a noble gesture of “tolerance” by a regime that did its very best to eliminate the remaining diversity of cultures and religions in its lands for decades to come through acts ranging from the population exchange with Greece, to the Izmir Economics Congress of 1923 where the elimination of “foreign” bourgeoisie and its replacement with a “national” one was planned, to the Varlik Vergisi (Capital Tax) of 1942, among many other examples. Such a regime surely could not care less about multiculturalism, inclusivity, or the Byzantine past as the authors suggest. […]

This idea also worked very well for the urban Kemalist elite and their newly created middle class throughout the 20th century, because it did not require them to symbolically come to terms with the vast destruction visited upon the minorities of the land, from whom they had acquired significant aspects of their material and cultural wealth via direct or indirect appropriation

I agree that a narrative that “equates Ottoman approaches to Hagia Sophia with iconophobia and iconoclasm is incorrect” but I do not think it is necessarily “marked by Islamophobia and Orientalism” given the fact that Byzantine art and architecture suffered tremendous degradation and damage, sometimes in the name of Islam, and other times at the hands of unscrupulous republican bureaucrats, treasure hunters, or the common public in more recent times. Any scholar, casual observer, or visitor of Byzantine, Armenian, or Syriac heritage sites in Turkey will be more than cognizant of the intentional damage done to frescoes, mosaics, and other elements of Christian architecture. The damage was done over a period of centuries under different conditions, the perpetrators were/are not a homogeneous group, and the practice ranges from officially undertaken projects to “simply” neglected sites. This is an undeniable fact, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that the few token examples in the Ottoman era, republican era or today somehow represent a “preservationist” or “tolerant” attitude when in the vast majority of locations they were covered at best and destroyed at worst. …..Today, the Turkish state uses sites such as the restored Aghtamar Cathedral of the Holy Cross or the Sumela Monastery as tokens of its hollow “multiculturalism” and “tolerance.” As scholars, we have a grave responsibility to challenge this narrative. This multiculturalism narrative and tokenism of Turkey is a propaganda tool designed to cover the simultaneous appropriation and destruction of the past and the present, motivated to a significant extent by the conquest narrative. The conquest narrative was a real factor in history, and it is a real factor today. Ignoring it, reducing it to merely an “incorrect” historical interpretation, or diminishing it to an ahistorical approach is dangerous. […]

The reconversion of the Hagia Sophia is about power; in a world where power relations past and present influence the lives of millions of people, and history is weaponized for various agendas, we do not have the luxury of pretending to “stay above it” in a noncommittal manner.

The interior of Hagia Sophia with the eight “hideous green billboards”. Getty Images.

For full article, please read below:

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Dangers of Convenient Universalism: Power Relations and Responsibility of Scholars on the Hagia Sophia

2020-08-08

By Axel B. Çorlu, Ph.D.

The recent reconversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque by the (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan regime generated heated debates among scholars, politicians, and the public. A recent article by Patricia Blessing and Ali Yaycioglu, titled “Beyond Conquest Narratives: Hagia Sophia, Past and Present” offers sophisticated but ultimately convenient universalism, where both the past and the present are presented from a distorted lens, with strategic omissions.[1]

According to Blessing and Yaycioglu, there is a binary “conquest narrative” that both the supporters and opponents of the Hagia Sophia reconversion utilize, and that in essence this simplistic view does not reflect the “complex history of Ottoman Hagia Sophia.” The authors go on to label the concerns about the protection of the structure, especially regarding the issue of the mosaics as ahistorical “disinformation,” and offer a “correct” version of history.

I will follow their text in the same order, and point out the multiple issues… (see below)

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