Under Erdogan, Turkey has put Islam back in place of secularism and is asserting itself once again as the dominant Muslim nation as it was in the days of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottoman Empire was founded in 1299 by Osman Ghazi and consistently grew from 1299 to 1683. The first 10 rulers of the Ottoman Empire were considered the most successful kings. Of particular note was Suleiman the Magnificent. It was during his reign that the Ottoman Empire rose to its peak of power and domination.
The Ottomans proved their strength in the Battle of Djerba in 1560. During the naval battle the Ottomans inflicted 10-20 times as many casualties as they sustained from the Christian alliance’s navy. The path was open for another attack on Malta.
The Great Siege of Malta was the major turning point for the Ottoman Turks. The Knights of Malta led by Grand Master Jean Parisot de La Valette played the lead role.
Queen Elizabeth I stated, “If the Turks should prevail against the Isle of Malta, it is uncertain what further peril might follow to the rest of Christendom.”
The rulers of numerous Christian realms and military orders soon put aside their differences, partially inspired by the Siege of Malta, and formed the Holy League. The Holy League went on to win a decisive victory against the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto six years later. And the Knights Hospitaller, later the Knights of Malta, still have their headquarters on the island to this day.
The Ottoman period spanned more than 600 years and came to an end only in 1922 after WW1 when it was replaced by the Turkish Republic and various successor states in southeastern Europe and the Middle East.
The popular Turkish reaction to the reconversion of Hagia Sophia (known as Aya Sophia in Turkish) cannot be explained without reference to these historical facts. The attempt by the “Christian” allied powers to carve up the Turkish homeland in addition to detaching the non-Turkish portions of the Ottoman Empire and dividing them up among themselves have been strong reminders for the Turks over generations of their loss of greatness. The transformation of Hagia Sophia from a mosque to a museum was perceived as a part of this loss that needed to be remedied.
The mosque of Hagia Sophia was a major symbol of the Ottoman victory over the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and an emblem of Turkish pride. Ataturk’s decision to turn it into a museum to display its dual Byzantine and Islamic heritage was an attempt to demonstrate both a break from what he considered to be the decrepit Ottoman past and to establish Turkey’s credentials as a “civilized” nation in the eyes of the West. But, this decision had been resented by the religiously observant Turkish masses imbued with the combined spirit of Islam and Ottomanism.
Thus, the reconversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which it had been for close to five hundred years, as a move to revive his dwindling popularity appeared an attractive and relatively costless proposition to Erdogan. However, such a move cannot succeed in a vacuum for it would not work if it did not touch a vital chord in Turkish hearts. That the decision would appeal to a large majority of Turks is the gamble that Erdogan has taken and there is sufficient evidence to conclude that it has worked.