Ideas

Brainiac

How to handle religious sites that are also museums

Inside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.
AFP/Getty Images/file 2014
Inside the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

Religious sites make good museums. They’re often packed with historical significance and housed inside spectacular structures—just the kinds of things tourists come to see. But a museum serves very different ends than an active place of worship, which sometimes creates conflicts between the rules of museum decorum and the desires of people who come there to pray.

Architectural historian and Boston University alumnus Tugba Tanyeri-Erdemir, who’s now at Middle East Technical University Ankara, Turkey, studies what’s sometimes called the “museumification” of religious sites. She’s developing recommendations for how to settle the competing claims often staked to such places. Specifically she looks at sites in her home country, Turkey, whose long and complicated religious history makes such debates common.

The most prominent example is the Hagia Sophia, a dazzling 1,500-year-old building in Istanbul that was built as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral and then turned into an Ottoman mosque. Today, it is a museum with a $12.80 entrance fee.

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“[The Hagia Sophia] is important emotionally for the world of Orthodox Christianity and world of Islam, but it is also an important monument for those who would define themselves as secular Turkish citizens,” Tanyeri-Erdemir says.

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The Hagia Sophia is a museum, but it still attracts a lot of religious attention. Tanyeri-Erdemir says it’s a frequent gathering point for Muslim protests and a place people come to pray: “If you were to do a silent prayer standing up, nobody bothers you, but if you doing anything communal, you will be effectively taken out of the site.”

Tanyeri-Erdemir is interviewing representatives of different constituencies to develop what she calls “effective heritage management plans.” One strategy she cites, which is used at some museumified religious sites in Turkey, involves letting people come and pray on a small number of designated days each year.

In the case of the Hagia Sophia, she says, most academics favor keeping it as a museum for preservation reasons. This could be a disappointment to people who want to worship there, but Tanyeri-Erdemir has heard devotees express the idea that if their religion can’t have the Hagia Sophia, it’s better that no religious group has it. “There’s some feeling of contentment with the current situation in the Orthodox world and Islamic world,” she says.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.