The first Friday prayers in 86 years have just been held in Turkey's Hagia Sophia. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his top ministers, donned in face-masks, with huge crowds who had congregated since dawn around the cathedral-turned-museum-turned-mosque, knelt on blue carpets at the start of a ceremony which marks the return of Muslim worship to the ancient structure. 



The Hagia Sophia had been a museum since 1934, and has just been reconverted into a mosque. The massive tourist attraction in Istanbul was originally built as an Orthodox cathedral 1500 years ago and is Turkey’s most popular site, attracting more than 3.7 million visitors a year.

The decree by Erdogan followed a ruling by Turkey’s top administrative court this month that the 1934 conversion, from a mosquewhich the Hagia Sophia had been for 500 years—into a museum, was illegal. The court reasoned that Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered what was then Constantinople in 1453, had designated the property as a mosque. Because Hagia Sofia is still owned by the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Han Foundation, its status as a mosque should never have been revoked in 1934.

For its part, UNESCO has issued a statement “deeply regretting” the decision by Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion and calling for the universal value of the World Heritage Site to be preserved, something Turkish officials have promised they will see through, while reaffirming Turkish sovereignty over the decision.

Photo by Anadolu Agency.

One of the most striking features of Hagia Sophia is its seemingly superimposed identities. Ottoman minarets top Byzantine cathedral architecture, Islamic calligraphy and mosaics of the Virgin Mary lie beneath the soaring golden dome, and it is the burial place of both 12th-century Venetian Crusaders and Ottoman Sultans.

“Turkey will still preserve the Christian icons there, just like our ancestors preserved all Christian values,” said Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson. Authorities say Christian emblems will not be removed, though Turkey’s Karar news agency reports that curtains and folding screens will be used to cover them up during prayer.

“All of our major mosques such as the Blue Mosque, Fatih, and Suleymaniye Mosques, they are open to both visitors and worshippers,” continued Kalin, citing the examples of France’s iconic Notre Dame Cathedral and Sacre-Coeur Basilica, world-famous churches which are open to both tourists and worshippers. “Opening up Hagia Sophia to worship doesn't keep local or foreign tourists from visiting the site. So a loss from the world’s heritage is not in question,” he added.

While the move seems a relatively small one, the reactions from social media, political analysts, and the Turkish government itself points to how the cathedral-mosque-museum speaks to the very ethos of Turkey’s state-building.

The difference between the Turkish Presidency's tweets in English and Arabic has been pointed out as hypocritical, with the English version reassuring inclusivity, and the Arabic one a message that "the revival of Hagia Sophia is a sign of the return of freedom to Al-Aqsa Mosque...and a return of hope for all Muslims, persecuted people, and the disadvantaged and abused."

“Making changes at Hagia Sophia is profoundly symbolic. It was Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, who decreed that it should be a museum,” writes Orla Guerin, Irish journalist and BBC correspondent. “President Erdogan is now taking one more step to dismantle Ataturk's secular legacy, and remould Turkey according to his vision. The Turkish leader — who presents himself as a modern day conqueror — is making no apologies for the change. He says anyone who doesn't like it — and plenty abroad don't — is attacking Turkey's sovereignty.” 

Soner Cagaptay, Turkish-American political scientist and director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, also commented: “Just as Ataturk nearly 100 years ago ‘unmosqued’ Hagia Sophia to underline commitment to his own secularist revolution, to take religion out of politics, Erdogan is now doing nearly the opposite. He is reconverting the building into a mosque to underline his own religious revolution.”

On the other hand, Khalid Yacine, anthropologist of antiquities at the University of Setif, says this is par for the course for historical monuments, including St. Peter’s Basilica, the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, Spanish churches in the Americas, the Church of Prophet Elija in Thessaloniki, Greece, and the Sveti Sedmochislenitsi Church of Sofia in Bulgaria, all of which were converted from temples and mosques into churches. 

“Turkey has ruled to allow people to carry out prayers in Hagia Sophia,” he said to TRT. “That hardly compares to getting arrested in the Grand Mosque of Cordoba for saying something in Arabic or converting it into a cathedral. If anything, the Hagia Sophia stands today because of Turkey’s efforts to restore it.” 

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More than merely historical or cosmetic, analysts have also pointed to this decision, ceding to a long-standing demand by Turkish Islamists, as the latest in Erdogan’s populist moves. Some have derided it as a ploy to mask economic collapse, while others have called it a ‘slap in the face’ to the West.

In a televised address, Erdogan announced that the first Muslim prayer will be held inside the building on 24 July. He also sought to reassure non-Muslims that they will be welcome at the site, beginning his address saying that the $15 entrance fee will be waived, since the Byzantine-era monument is no longer a museum but a mosque and an active place of worship.


Image by Mustafa Kamaci, AFP.