ON JULY 5th the mufti of Trabzon gathered with other citizens for the first Friday prayers of the holy fasting month of Ramadan, not at a mosque but at an ancient Byzantine church. The gathering was a symbolic re-enactment of the conquest in 1462 of this ancient Greek Black Sea port by Mehmet II, the Ottoman sultan who had wrested Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453. He marked his victory by converting the Haghia Sophia cathedral of today’s Istanbul into a mosque.
The decision provoked surprising anger in a city notorious for its ultra-nationalist views. “It’s about erasing the Christian past, reviving Ottomanism,” says a local historian. “There are enough mosques in Trabzon, half of them empty, what was the need?” chimes in Zeki Bakar, a neighbourhood councillor. A lawsuit has been brought to undo the conversion.
All this is prompting anxiety that the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul “will be next”. These fears are overdone. Restoration work on the famous basilica has continued under a decade of AK rule and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, has dismissed worries about its fate. Yet Mr Yildirimhan makes no secret of his desire for a conversion, which he says is shared by fellow Muslims. “It was ordained by the sultan,” he says. “We have all the records.”
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