Turkey’s leader has officially converted a historic building back into a mosque. On Friday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared the Hagia Sophia open for Muslim worship. His decision is making waves worldwide.
Hagia Sophia was built under Emperor Justinian in 537. It became the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church. For centuries, emperors were crowned there amid the lavish marble and ornate mosaics. For several decades, the building was a Roman Catholic church. Following the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople (now called Istanbul) in 1453, the building became a Muslim mosque.
In 1935, Turkey’s Council of Ministers decided Hagia Sophia would be a museum. Last year, the site drew more than 3.7 million visitors.
On July 10, 2020, Turkey’s highest court threw out the museum decision. Despite global criticism, President Erdoğan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency. He says the first Muslim prayers inside Hagia Sofia will be held on July 24.
“It is Turkey’s sovereign right to decide for which purpose Hagia Sofia will be used,” he says.
The move is already deepening tensions with neighboring Greece. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis calls the decision an insult to Hagia Sophia’s standing as promoting religious unity. “It is a decision that offends all those who recognize Hagia Sophia as an indispensable part of world cultural heritage,” Mitsotakis says.
Vladimir Dzhabarov, part of the Russian parliament, called the action “a mistake.” “Turning it into a mosque will not do anything for the Muslim world,” he says. “It does not bring nations together, but on the contrary brings them into collision.”
The Hagia Sophia debate highlights Turkey’s deep religious-secular divide. Muslim groups in Turkey regard the church as part of their legacy. Greek Orthodox groups point out it was theirs first. Others believe Hagia Sophia should remain a museum as a symbol of religious harmony.
Zeynep Kizildag, a 27-year-old social worker, doesn’t support the change. “The decision to turn it into a mosque is like erasing 1,000 years of history, in my opinion.” She says the change “will make life more difficult for Christians here and for Muslims in Europe.”
“Hagia Sophia was a symbol of our rich history,” she says. “Its dome was big enough for all.”
(Muslims offer evening prayers outside the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, one of Istanbul’s main tourist attractions on Friday, July 10, 2020. AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)