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Turkey Controversially Converts Hagia Sophia From Museum Into Mosque

The move has attracted criticism from Unesco, Pope Francis, the Russian Orthodox Church and others

Aerial view of Istanbul's Hagia Sophia (Photo by Muhammed Enes Yildirim / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Last Friday, a Turkish court revoked the 1934 order designating Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia as a museum. Within minutes, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decreed that the site would reopen as a working mosque, reports Carlotta Gall for the New York Times.

Built in the sixth century A.D. as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, the architectural wonder underwent a brief stint as a Roman Catholic church before becoming a mosque in 1453. More recently, the temple-turned-museum has emerged as a monument to harmony with shared religious significance.

Erdogan’s decision to reopen the building for Muslim prayers has drawn criticism from parties including the World Council of Churches; the Greek Foreign Ministry; European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell; Pope Francis; and Unesco, which declared the house of worship a heritage site in 1985. These detractors cite concerns regarding access to the building and preservation of its Christian icons and mosaics.

In his televised address, the Turkish president promised to keep the site open to both Muslims and non-Muslims. He also announced plans to eliminate entrance fees.

“Hagia Sophia, the common heritage of humanity, will go forward to embrace everyone with its new status in a much more sincere and much more unique way,” Erdogan added, as quoted by the Times.

Prayers outside Hagia Sophia
People gather for evening prayers outside Istanbul's famous Hagia Sophia on July 10. (Photo by Burak Kara / Getty Images)

Presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin tells the state-run Anadolu Agency that Hagia Sophia could operate similarly to France’s Notre-Dame cathedral and Sacré-Cœur basilica, which are normally open to both tourists and worshippers.

Officials plan to use lights and curtains to cover the building’s indoor mosaics during Muslim services, as Islam forbids displaying images of people in mosques. The mosaics will be uncovered following the prayers’ conclusion, Turkey’s head of religious affairs, Ali Erbaş, said on TV over the weekend, as quoted by Kelly Murray of CNN.

Campaigns calling for Hagia Sophia’s return to use as either a mosque or a cathedral started gaining traction in 2005, reports Kiona N. Smith for Ars Technica. Per the Times, the site is the fourth Byzantine church museum that Erdogan has restored as a mosque during his time in power; opponents say the decision is a blatant attempt to regain political popularity among his nationalist, deeply religious base.

Critics of Hagia Sophia’s planned conversion argue that the move counters its shared place in Christian and Muslim history.

“Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries,” says Unesco Director-General Audrey Azoulay in a statement. “Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue.”

The statement expresses concern that Turkey may modify the site in ways that threaten its state of conservation. It calls on Turkish authorities to “initiate dialogue without delay, in order to prevent any detrimental effect on the universal value of this exceptional heritage,” and notes that Unesco’s World Heritage Committee will discuss the monument’s status at its next session.

Hagia Sophia interior
Tourists visit the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on July 10, 2020. (Photo by Ozan Kose / AFP via Getty Images)

But conducting an internal review may not be enough to spark meaningful action, according to Evangelos Kyriakidis, director of the Chicago-based Heritage Management Organization. As she observes in a statement, Unesco can “shame governments” that fail to safeguard their countries’ cultural heritage, but it often struggles to enforce its regulations.

“The issue is that there is no punishment, and the worst that can happen is that [Unesco] revokes the world heritage status,” Kyriakidis explains. “ … A travel warning that you are going to a country that does not look after world heritage could be damning, but it is very hard for [Unesco] to do that because it needs the money of the parties that are involved—in this case Turkey.”

Hagia Sophia first became a mosque when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople—soon renamed Istanbul—in 1453. Though sultan Mehmet II initially claimed the domed cathedral as his own, he later gifted it to Istanbul as part of a Muslim charitable endowment known as a waqf, reports Ars Technica.

The Pope said on Sunday that he was “very saddened” by Edrogan’s decision. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church also expressed regret that their concerns were not taken into account by the Turkish court.

Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk tells BBC News that the decree may adversely affect Turkish people’s pride in their country’s status as a secular Muslim nation.

“There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard,” he says.

The first Muslim prayer services at Hagia Sophia will take place on July 24.

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