Hagia Sophia: Turkey’s Iconic Monument, Caught in Faith & Conflict

Istanbul’s 1,500-year-old iconic Hagia Sophia will on Friday, 24 April, conduct its first Muslim prayers after a high court in Turkey ruled in favour of its conversion back into a mosque.

The move, which was announced by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to the nation on 10 July, has been met with different reactions across the world, as people try to reconcile with the fact that the Hagia Sophia, which was once one of Christianity’s most famous cathedrals is returning to its status as a mosque.

In its status as a museum since 1934, it has held the mantle of a World Heritage Site and was identified by UNESCO as a landmark of cultural significance. It was also Turkey’s most visited museum and drew approximately 3.7 million visitors in 2019.

As the Hagia Sophia, or the Shrine of Holy Wisdom is officially re-designated as a mosque, here’s a look at its long history and its status over the years.

Also Read: Turkey to Turn Istanbul’s Iconic Museum Hagia Sophia Into a Mosque

1,500 Year Long History

The Hagia Sophia was built in the year 537 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, overlooking the Golden Horn harbour in Constantinople, on the site of two previously destroyed churches. It was constructed with materials brought from all over the empire, through the efforts of almost ten thousand people and was inaugurated by the emperor on 27 December 537.

The church remained in Byzantine hands for almost 900 years, apart from a period between 1204 and 1261 when Crusaders raided the city and it became a Roman Catholic cathedral. However, in 1261, the Byzantines captured Constantinople again, taking over the church once more.

But finally, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman army, which sacked the city, under the reign of the 20-year-old Mehmed II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Mehmed II is said to have ridden to the church on his entry into the city and stopped a man from hacking at the stones of the Hagia Sophia in an attempt to deface it. The Sultan converted the church into a mosque and over time, the Ottomans added four minarets to the structure, and plastered over the Byzantine mosaics with panels in Arabic religious calligraphy.

In 1934, however, after centuries as a mosque, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern, secular republic of Turkey. When the Hagia Sophia museum opened in February 1935, for the first time in centuries, all the Byzantine mosaics were uncovered, the plasters removed and the carpets had disappeared, allowing the structure to be seen in its original glory.

Road to Conversion Back to Mosque

As far back as 2005, a religious group in Turkey had appealed to the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, claiming that the Hagia Sophia was the property of Mehmed II.

In March 2019, Erdogan had mentioned at the time of elections that he had plans to re-title the Hagia Sophia as a mosque instead of a museum, even calling the 1934 conversion a “big mistake”. This was a change of plans from 2014, when the president’s senior adviser Ibrahim Kalin reportedly said that there was no plan to change its status.

Erdogan’s proposal brought about ire and opposition from the Greek government, for whom, the cathedral was the main seat of the Greek Orthodox church till its conversion into a mosque, The Associated Press reported. Since then, there has been much opposition from across the world against the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque, even as Erdogan threw his weight behind the campaign.

However, on 10 July, the Council of State published its ruling, declaring the 1934 conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum by Ataturk illegal and in non-compliance with laws, paving the way for Erdogan to officially reinstate it as a mosque.

Hours after the court’s ruling, Erdogan signed a decree on the conversion and addressed the media, declaring Hagia Sophia a mosque on Friday and saying that the first Muslim prayers would begin in two weeks, 24 July.

According to The New York Times, Erdogan in his speech quoted Mehmed II’s will, which seemingly calls down curses on anyone daring to change the Hagia Sophia’s status, but did not mention Ataturk at all.

What Changes Will be Effected to the Hagia Sophia Now?

In his 10 July speech, according to Al Jazeera, Erdogan said that deciding the purpose of the Hagia Sofia is Turkey’s sovereign right but reiterated that the monument would remain open to all.

“Like all our other mosques, the doors of the Hagia Sophia will be open to all locals, foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims,” Erdogan said. “Being the common heritage of humankind, the Hagia Sophia will continue to embrace everyone in a most sincere, unique way, with its new status,” he reportedly added.

The oversight of the symbolic monument has been transferred from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture to the Presidency of Religious Affairs and some changes in physical appearance will take place, some of which is already in motion.

A view of the museum in 2019.

The Associated Press reported that the ticket kiosk outside the erstwhile museum has been removed and the marble floors inside the structure have been covered in a turquoise-coloured carpet as it transforms into a house of worship.

Al Jazeera reported that the Diyanet, Turkey’s religious authority, said Christian iconography would be curtained off or covered by some means during prayer times. Authorities have also said that some of the mosaics positioned in the direction faced during prayer would be covered during the time, but that outside of prayers, everything would be uncovered and the mosque would be open to all visitors.

Dismay, Regret and Disappointment: Reactions Pour In

The conversion of the World Heritage Site and one of the symbols of the reforms under Ataturk’s regime into a religious site has been met with strong reactions and dismay from various quarters of the world.

UNESCO said in a strong statement that it “deeply regretted the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion” and called for “the universal value of World Heritage to be preserved”.

Pope Francis said, “My thoughts go to Istanbul. I think of Santa Sophia, and I am very pained.”

The Eastern Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew cautiously expressed regret that the Hagia Sophia would cease to be “a place and symbol of encounter, dialogue and peaceful coexistence of peoples and cultures”, the New York Times reported. According to Bloomberg, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis condemned the decision, saying it affected “not only Turkey’s relations with Greece, but also its relations with the European Union, Unesco and the global community.”

A view of the museum in 2019.

Al Jazeera reported that the Russian Orthodox church expressed its dismay, saying that the concern of millions of Christians has not been heard, while Vladimir Dzhabarov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in the Russian upper house of parliament, called the action "a mistake".

The US State Department said it was “disappointed by the decision” and the European Union's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the decision "regrettable".

Attempt by Erdogan to Boost Supporter Base?

Opponents of this conversion of the Hagia Sophia are seeing this move by Erdogan as an attempt to strengthen his largely conservative religious base of supporters at a time when his political standing is rather shaky.

Many have called it an attempt to distract from the problems brought by coronavirus and the sliding economy, while some see it as an attempt to bring back Turkey’s identity as a powerful Muslim country than the secular republic instituted by Ataturk.

Erdogan, who comes from a conservative Muslim tradition, has used his time at the helm of Turkey to chip away at Ataturk’s modern, secular republic, doing away with the ban on Muslim headscarves in public and the promotion religious education among other things.

A former member of Erdogan’s cabinet, Ertugrul Gunay said in a television interview that this was Erdogan and the party’s attempt to show that they still hold mastery over Istanbul, despite having lost it in the elections.

“The need to be more visible in Istanbul and to claim ownership of certain rituals about history and religion emerged,” he reportedly said.

(With inputs from Bloomberg, BBC, Al Jazeera, New York Times and Reuters.)

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