Erdogan’s Big Gamble on the Hagia Sophia

Turkey’s president, desperate to boost his popularity at home, further damages his country’s international standing.

On July 9, Turkey’s Court of Cassation decided to void a 1934 cabinet decision designating Hagia Sophia as a museum.

Erdogan, the lobbyist

The high court’s decision followed an intense campaign by the office of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to convert the nearly 1,500-year-old Istanbul landmark back into a mosque.

A 2010 constitutional amendment allowed Erdogan to appoint a majority of the court’s current judges, so the decision was not a surprise.

Among other reasons, Erdogan apparently wants to move forward with the conversion in order to reverse the ongoing erosion of his popular base.

Hurting Turkey’s international brand

Yet, the decision on the Hagia Sophia is unlikely to give Erdogan more than a temporary boost in popularity. What it will surely do is undermine Turkey’s international brand as an open, Muslim-majority society at peace with its Christian heritage.

Byzantine emperor Justinian I built Hagia Sophia as a Christian cathedral in 537. In 1453, Ottoman sultan Mehmet II converted it into a mosque shortly after taking the city from the Byzantines.

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