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Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya): A Divine architectural Marvel

The Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) is among Turkey’s most famous and fascinating monuments. This ‘church of divine wisdom’ was inaugurated by Emperor Justinian on 26 December 537 it was the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, such as coronations. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman forces on 29 May 1453 and soon Hagia Sophia was converted to a mosque. Then in 1935, the first Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, transformed the building into a museum. It is among the world’s greatest architectural constructions, in particular famous for its massive dome, and considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. In 2020, despite global criticism, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reopened the Hagia Sophia as a mosque, now officially known as the Great Mosque of Ayasofya.

Hagia Sophia is one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. Its interior is decorated with mosaics and marble pillars and coverings of great artistic value. It was the second most visited museum in 2004 in Turkey, attracting almost 3.3 million visitors annually. Although the use of the complex as a place of worship (mosque or church) was strictly prohibited in 2006, the Turkish government allowed the allocation of a small room in the museum to be used as a prayer room for Christian and Muslim museum staff. 

In 2007, Greek American politician Chris Spirou initiated an international organization “Free Agia Sophia Council” leading the cause of restoring the building to its original function as a Christian church. Since the early 2010s, several campaigns and government high officials, mainly Turkey’s deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç have been demanding that Hagia Sophia be converted into a mosque again. 

Even though in 2016, Muslim prayers were held again in the Hagia Sophia for the first time in 85 years, the Turkish non-governmental organization, the Association for the Protection of Historic Monuments and the Environment filed a lawsuit for transforming the museum into a mosque. Then the court decided it should stay as a ‘monument museum’.

On 13 May 2017 a large crowd, organized by the Anatolia Youth Association (AGD), gathered in front of Hagia Sophia and prayed the Morning Prayer with a call for the reconversion of the museum into a mosque. And the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) organized a special program, which included the recitation of the Quran and prayers in Hagia Sofia, to commemorate the Laylat al-Qadr (27th Ramadhan night), the program was broadcast live by state-run television.

Since 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has spoken of reverting the status of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque, Erdoğan recited the first verse of the Quran in the Hagia Sophia, dedicating the prayer to the “souls of all who left us this work as inheritance, especially Istanbul’s conqueror,” strengthening the political movement to make the Hagia Sophia a mosque once again, which would reverse Atatürk’s effort of turning the Hagia Sophia into a secular museum.

Even though Erdoğan stated that he will change the status of Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque, As a UNESCO World Heritage site, this transformation required the approval from UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee.

In 2020, Turkey’s government is set to celebrate the 567th anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople with an Islamic prayer in Hagia Sophia.”Al-Fath surah will be recited and prayers will be done at Hagia Sophia as part of conquest festival,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said during a broadcast. Greece condemned this action, while Turkey in response accused Greece of making “futile and ineffective statements”. In June, the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) said that “we would be very happy to open Hagia Sophia for worship” and if this happens “we will provide our religious services as we do in all our mosques”.

On 10 July 2020, the decision of the Council of Ministers to transform the Hagia Sophia into a museum was cancelled by the Council of State. And, despite secular and global criticism, Erdoğan signed a decree annulling the Hagia Sophia’s museum status, reverting it to a mosque. The call to prayer was broadcasted from the minarets shortly after the announcement of the transformation.  

 A presidential spokesperson stated that it would become a working mosque, open to anyone similar to the Parisian churches Sacré-Cœur and Notre-Dame. The spokesperson also said that the change would not affect the status of the Hagia Sophia as a UNESCO World Heritage site and that “Christian icons” within it would continue to be protected.

The World Council of Churches, which represents most of the globe’s Christian Churches, condemned the decision to transform the building into a mosque, saying that would “inevitably create uncertainties, suspicions and mistrust”; the World Council of Churches demanded that Erdogan reverse the decision.

Pope Francis said that he was “pained”, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople warned that converting Hagia Sophia into a mosque would “fracture” East and West, and Russian Orthodox Christian leader Patriarch Kirill of Moscow decried the conversion of the building into a mosque as a “threat to the whole of Christian civilisation”. 

Meanwhile, Morgan Ortagus, the spokesperson for the United States Department of State noted that “We are disappointed by the decision by the government of Turkey to change the status of the Hagia Sophia. The European Union’s foreign ministers “condemned the Turkish decision to convert such an emblematic monument as the Hagia Sophia.

Controversially Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised only by Turkey, is happy with the opening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque. “Hagia Sophia has been Turkish, a mosque and a world heritage since 1453. The decision to use it as a mosque, at the same time to be visited as a museum, is sound and it is pleasing,” Prime Minister Ersin Tatar said.

 When President Erdogan announced that the first Muslim prayers would be held inside the building on 24 July, he added that “like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.” UNESCO announced it “deeply regrets” the conversion, “made without prior discussion”, and asked Turkey to “open a dialogue without delay”, stating that the lack of negotiation was “regrettable”. Further, the director-general Audrey Azoulay emphasized that “Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue”

Turkish sources said that the icons and mosaics of the building will be preserved, but they will be covered with laser-based technology, curtains and carpets during Islamic prayers.

By Jumana Jabeer

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