Tourists hoping to visit the Hagia Sophia will now have to pay a fee to step inside the 1,500-year-old religious and cultural site in Istanbul, Turkey.
Officials have announced a €25 (roughly $27) admission charge for foreign travelers who want to visit the landmark for “cultural purposes,” according to a translated statement. The fee went into effect earlier this month, though Turkish nationals who wish to worship at the mosque can still enter for free.
Previously, the site had been free of charge for all visitors. The change is part of a greater effort to separate tourists and worshippers, who will now access the structure through separate entrances. Additionally, instead of listening to live tour guides, tourists will now learn about the site through a new headset system, which offers commentary in about two dozen languages, in an effort to preserve the worship environment.
Turkey’s leaders implemented the entrance fee and made the other changes “in line with UNESCO’s guidance,” says Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, the minister of culture and tourism, per the Greek Reporter’s Tasos Kokkinidis. They hope the new policies will help protect the site, streamline visitation and prevent overcrowding.
These changes are just the latest in a series of debates regarding the primary purpose of the Hagia Sophia, a popular tourist attraction that has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. In July 2020, the government stripped it of its museum status and designated it as a functioning mosque for Muslim worship.
However, UNESCO officials and archaeologists largely opposed this change. The “uncontrolled flow of visitors” was damaging the historic building, as members of the Association of Greek Archaeologists wrote in an open letter in 2022.
“In the recent past, photographic evidence has come to light with gloomy prospects for the future of Hagia Sophia,” they wrote. “The Ottoman wooden door leaves of the Imperial Gate were damaged, wall coatings were scraped and removed, fountains and doors were used for shoe storage, marble floor slabs were destroyed. The unique Byzantine mosaics remain covered and unseen. Archaeological supervision has stayed outside the monument.”
Built between 532 and 537 C.E., the Hagia Sophia operated as a Christian cathedral for more than 900 years. It became a mosque after the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople in 1453. Centuries later, authorities turned it into a museum in the 1930s before redesignating it as a mosque in 2020.
Turkish officials say the new changes may help address some of the archaeologists’ concerns. Security cameras, an emergency announcement system and fire detectors have also been installed in the building, according to the government’s statement.
Still, some onlookers think the new measures aren’t enough to protect the historic site.
As Alper Ertubey, founder of the tour company Hike’n Sail Turkey, tells Skift’s Dawit Habtemariam, “I personally think that the new system is not worse than a week ago, but terminating the museum status of Hagia Sophia is a very wrong idea.”