Turkey Turns Iconic Museum ‘Hagia Sophia’ into Mosque

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Friday that the Hagia Sophia, one of the architectural wonders of the world, would be reopened for Muslim worship. His declaration came after a top Turkish court revoked the sixth-century Byzantine monument’s status as a museum, clearing the way for it to be turned back into a mosque.

Built 1,500 years ago as an Orthodox Christian cathedral, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. After the founding of the Republic of Turkey, the building, which witnessed the rise and fall of several empires, reopened as a museum and became a symbol of the blending of East and West cultures and one of Turkey’s most popular tourist attractions.

In 1934, it became a museum and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. This site in historic Istanbul is a magnet for tourists worldwide.

Christ Enthroned Mosaic. Photo Credit: PlanetWare

“Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” President Edrogan added.

The Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, unanimously cancelled a 1934 cabinet decision to turn it into a museum and said Hagia Sophia was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.

The landmark ruling could inflame tensions not just with the West and Turkey’s historic foe Greece but also Russia, with which President Erdogan has forged an increasingly close partnership in recent years.

Greece swiftly branded the move by Muslim-majority Turkey an “open provocation to the civilised world”.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia today reveals a visual legacy from its role as both a Christian and Muslim centre of worship
Photograph by Scott S. Warren, Nat Geo Image Collection

“Today’s decision, which came as a result of the political will of President (Tayyip) Erdogan, is an open provocation to the civilized world which recognises the unique value and ecumenical nature of the monument,” Culture Minister Lina Mendoni said in a written statement. The minister clarified that Greece was not “trying to interfere in Turkey’s domestic affairs,” however, Hagia Sophia is “a monument to all mankind, regardless of religion.”

The Church in Russia, home to the world’s largest Orthodox Christian community, immediately expressed regret that the Turkish court had not considered its concerns when ruling on Hagia Sophia. It said the decision could lead to even greater divisions.

In an official statement issued today, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay states, “It deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, to change the status of Hagia Sophia.”

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which said it was an “unequivocal politicization” of the monument, also condemned the move.

Hagia Sophia, which stands opposite the impressive Sultanahmet Mosque — often called the Blue Mosque, has been a museum since 1935 and open to believers of all faiths.

Sharing a presidential decree, which named Hagia Sophia as a “mosque”, President Erdogan announced its administration would be handed over to Turkey’s religious affairs directorate known as Diyanet. The duties of the Diyanet are “to execute the works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshiping places”.

President Erdogan, in recent years has placed great emphasis on the battles, which resulted in the defeat of Byzantium by the Ottomans, with lavish celebrations held every year to mark the conquest. Muslim clerics have occasionally recited prayers in the museum on key anniversaries or religious holidays.

Ahead of the court decision, Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul shared a picture of Hagia Sophia on his official Twitter account, with a message: “Have a good Friday.”

Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law, tweeted that Hagia Sophia would be reopened to Muslim worship “sooner or later”, referring to a quote from Turkish poet Necip Fazil Kisakurek.

The Council of State had, on July 2 debated the case brought by a Turkish group — the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment, which demanded Hagia Sophia be reopened for Muslim prayers.

Since 2005, there have been several attempts to change the building’s status. In 2018, the Constitutional Court rejected one application.

While the move is popular with conservative religious supporters of President Erdogan, Turkey’s most famous author, Orhan Pamuk said the decision would take away the “pride” some Turks had in being a secular Muslim nation. “There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard,” he told the BBC.

Sharon Gerstel, professor of Byzantine art and archaeology at UCLA, also stresses that while today’s decision has provoked an international outcry, much remains unknown about what next steps may be taken with the status of Hagia Sophia.

Photo Credits: hurriyetdailynews.com

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