Mezquita and Hagia Sophia: two sacred symbols and the culture wars that belie their complex history

World heritage monuments in Córdoba and Istanbul stand at the centre of a reductionist bid to rewrite the past

In these two remarkable buildings at opposite ends of Europe, in their stones and slates and marble and gold, in their pillars and arches and windows and mosaics, can be glimpsed the complexities of European history, of the Christian tradition and of the story of Islam. In many of the debates that surround these buildings can be heard the attempts to rewrite that history, to cleanse stories of their intricacies, to construct myths to impose upon our lives.

Kenan Malik

Córdoba’s mosque-cathedral is one of the most glorious buildings in Europe. I was last there 30 years ago, but the memory is still vividly etched in my mind. I remember walking through the Courtyard of the Orange Trees. Then, almost if they had magically changed form, the rows of orange trees give way to a forest of columns of red-and-white arches that mark the mosque.

The transition is stunning, as is the mosque, the beauty of which, spacious and peaceful, is almost impossible to convey in words rather than in the experience. And then, as you walk through, there comes another transition – to a Renaissance cathedral that squats like a familiar stranger within. It would be difficult to call the cathedral beautiful, but there is something quite remarkable about it.

Córdoba’s mosque-cathedral is an architectural expression of the complex, intricate history of Europe. And that, for some, is the problem. There has been a long campaign by the Catholic church to diminish the Islamic heritage of the building and to view it primarily as a Christian monument.

Last week came the latest move in this campaign as a new report by the bishop of Córdoba, Demetrio Fernández González, was leaked to the newspaper El País. The report calls for the “redesign of the entire space” of the mosque area to ensure that Córdoba is not seen “as a Muslim city”. It denounces the “cultural reductionism” that, in the bishop’s view, has helped “eclipse the brilliant Visigothic, Roman and Christian past”. The report, in El País’s words, maintains “the offensive against the indisputable and evident Islamic influence of the entire monumental complex”…


Hagia Sophia was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian, the last Latin-speaking ruler of what was then the eastern Roman empire, and completed in 537. With its stupendous central dome that appears, in the words of contemporary historian Procopius, “not to be founded on solid masonry, but to be suspended from heaven”, the first masterpiece of Byzantine architecture has cast an enduring shadow upon the eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim worlds, influencing the development both of architecture and forms of worship.

Hagia Sophia became the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and the spiritual heart of the Byzantine empire. In 1453, the city was captured by the Ottomans under Mehmed II. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, Hagia Sophia Islamicised to Ayasofya and the cathedral turned into the city’s first imperial mosque, coming eventually to boast four minarets.

After the fall of the Ottoman empire in the aftermath of the First World War, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established Turkey as a secular republic. The cathedral mosque became a museum, in which worship was forbidden, a symbol of Atatürk’s new secular state.

Almost a century later, in 2020, Hagia Sophia was turned back into a mosque, the culmination of a long campaign driven by conservative Muslims and backed by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Restoring its status as a mosque helps reinforce for the ruling Islamist AK party a sense of modern Turkey’s Muslim foundations.

Since the conversion, the Christian mosaics of Jesus, Mary, the apostles and of Byzantine rulers have been covered by curtains during Muslim prayer. Ironically, when Mehmed II took Constantinople, not only did he not cover the mosaics but stood in awe of their glory, as Carlos V had of the beauty of Córdoba’s mosque. Today’s culture warriors, it would appear, often have minds more closed than yesterday’s real warriors…