UPON my first visit to Istanbul in 2010, I wrote: “The Hagia Sophia is quite unlike any other building I’ve been in: enormous Islamic calligraphy just metres away from truly ancient but relatively recently uncovered mosaics of Byzantine emperors and empresses flanking Jesus Christ. It was a church from 360 until 1453 when Mehmed the Conqueror had it converted into a mosque, which it remained until Atatürk turned it into a museum in 1935.
“The whole concept is quite unfathomable to a Malaysian: imagine a Langkasukan Hindu temple having been converted into a mosque and surviving to this day.”
Indeed, in India there are a few mosques still standing that were once Hindu temples (or on the site of one), which is a topic of contention today as religious polarisation comes to the fore.
In 2020, in a case that received international news coverage, the Turkish Council of State declared the Ayasofya a ‘waqf’ of Sultan Mehmed II and therefore, the 1935 conversion to a museum was null and void.
Thus, the decision of President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was reversed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. At the time, concern was expressed as to what impact this might have on the ancient works of religious art contained within, especially as the building was included in the ‘Historic Areas of Istanbul’ Unesco World Heritage Site.
I decided to have a look for myself during a brief stop in Istanbul en route back from Sarajevo.
With demand being exceptionally high to join congregational prayers – not just on Fridays – I was lucky to find a spot on the second ‘saf’ (line) having navigated through a mass of tourists.
The first difference since my first visit is that the entire place is now carpeted, with the exception of areas of particular Byzantine significance.
But apart from that, the mosaics on the ceilings are still visible. During prayer time – and only at the front part of the mosque – the main picture of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus is covered with a piece of fabric underneath.
Even so, if you look straight up, there is a gap in the covering so you can still see the image!
Further back in the main hall, the face of a seraphim remains uncovered near to calligraphy depicting the name ‘Prophet Muhammad’.
This would surely be considered unacceptable to many Malaysian Muslims (for example, among those who take issue with crosses in old missionary schools), but my Turkish Muslim guide – a student wearing a hijab – who showed me around was proud that this marvel of history has remained intact, while being able to service worshippers today.
I felt the same sense of national pride combined with religious confidence when I visited the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt and Borobudur in Indonesia: there is no insecurity at all from these Muslims in appreciating their countries’ pre-Islamic past.
Similarly, in Jordan and now even in Saudi Arabia, the Nabataean sites of Petra and Hegra, respectively, are being proudly preserved.
Perhaps we would, one day, appreciate Lembah Bujang in the same way.
Where we are more adept in combining culture and religion is in the tradition of Hari Raya open houses, and I was back in time to enjoy a representative selection of them.
They come in four broad categories. The first type is the family and friends’ open houses, which usually happen in the first week of Syawal — here you get traditional fare, kids collecting ‘duit raya’ (cash packets), and the barrage of ‘bila nak kahwin?’ (when will you get married) from the aunties.
Then there are the ‘internal open houses’ of companies and organisations, designed for staff members, with speeches from the CEOs and also the ‘Best Dressed’ competitions.
Of course there are also the huge corporate open houses, nowadays bedecked with food stalls placed to ensure a constant circulation of people and thus, networking opportunities. Indeed, many a deal or job offer has its roots in a corporate open house.
Yet there are those more impactful still, where youthful optimism for a better future can motivate even more than just corporate deals.
At Yayasan Chow Kit (YCK)’s ‘Pusat Aktiviti Kanak-Kanak’ (Children’ Activities Centre), children put on a Raya show to celebrate the birthday of their founder, Dato’ Hartini Zainudin, whose founding of YCK and continued activism have uplifted the status of underprivileged children throughout the country.
Many people are aware of our ‘PAKK’ and ‘KL Krash Pad’, but at our safehouse for at-risk children, heartfelt singing and drawings of an incomparably better life than the one they had before showed that with strong leadership, vision and an open mind, Malaysia can still offer hope and opportunity for the next generation.
Indeed, at the national level, that can be true even without stunning edifices as Ayasofya.