The landmark Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque

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The landmark Hagia Sophia becomes a mosque. Church, mosque and then museum – Hagia Sophia is one of the most popular buildings in Istanbul. Now Erdogan opens them for prayer.

Around 90 years after the Istanbul landmark Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum by the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the building is again a mosque. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the opening to Islamic prayer on Friday. With the decision, which Erdogan shared on Twitter, he also handed over the management of the “Hagia Sophia Mosque” to the religious authority Diyanet.

Erdogan’s order came immediately after a decision by the Supreme Administrative Court in Ankara, which canceled the former church’s status as a museum, paving the way for conversion to a mosque. According to Anadolu, the court based its decision on the fact that Hagia Sophia was owned by a foundation founded by Sultan Mehmet II (“The Conqueror”). The Sultan had transformed Hagia Sophia into a mosque after the conquest of Constantinople (today: Istanbul) in 1453. According to the foundation, it is defined as a mosque and should not be used other than for this purpose.

Greece and the Russian Orthodox Church sharply criticized the decision. The Greek Minister of Culture Lina Mendoni spoke of a “provocation for the civilized world”. Erdogan “leads his country back six centuries.” Vladimir Legoida of the Moscow Patriarchate told Interfax Agency: “The concern of millions of Christians has not been heard.”

The decision is likely to further intensify the relationship between its neighbors, Greece and Turkey, which are already fighting over natural gas deposits in the Mediterranean and migration issues. Trouble with Unesco is also programmed. Hagia Sophia has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985 as part of Istanbul’s old town.

A group of supporters of the decision spontaneously gathered in front of Hagia Sophia. They shouted “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”). Ayse Alkan, who had a Turkish flag wrapped around her shoulders, told Ataturk’s decision at the time to turn Hagia Sophia into a museum was wrong from the start. “Fatih Sultan Mehmet entrusted them to us. As important as the churches are to Christians, Hagia Sophia is as important to us.” The police cordoned off the square in front of Hagia Sophia. Police officers put themselves in position, but it remained calm at first.

Hagia Sophia (Greek: Holy Wisdom) was built in the 6th century AD and was the main church of the Byzantine Empire, where the emperors were crowned. After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople at the time in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque and added four minarets as an external feature. At the instigation of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, the Council of Ministers ordered the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934.

This decision by Ataturk is now invalid by the court order. Even before the decision, Unesco had warned that any change in the status of Hagia Sophia must be checked.

For years, the conversion of Hagia Sophia was always on the agenda. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself announced this last year, but has never ordered it, even if he could have done so by decree.

Critics accuse Erdogan of wanting to distract from the economic problems with the discussion about the building or to have put the topic on the agenda prior to elections in order to unite his religious supporters behind him. At the end of May, Erdogan held an Islamic prayer in Hagia Sophia on the anniversary of the conquest of Constantinople.

Now Erdogan left the decision to the Supreme Administrative Court. However, the opposition leaves no doubt who they think is behind it: Erdogan personally. CHP spokesman Faik Öztrak had recently criticized that the judiciary was controlled by Erdogan’s government and was not acting against their will.

Analyst Kadri Gürsel called Hagia Sophia the government’s “stress barometer”. This no longer has any topics with which it can advertise and no solutions to the problems of the country. Domestically, no one opposed the conversion to a mosque, but Erdogan would benefit if Greece and the Orthodox world opposed it. The government is suggesting “political profit” from polarization.

Tourists can probably also visit the Hagia Sophia as a mosque, similar to the nearby Blue Mosque in the old town of Istanbul. Last year, Hagia Sophia officially attracted 3.7 million visitors, making it the most visited museum in Turkey.

It is world famous mainly because of the 56 meter high dome, which seems to float almost weightlessly over the main room. Inside, the walls are decorated with Byzantine mosaics and marble. To do justice to the ban on images in Islam, the mosaics would have to be covered during Islamic prayer. (dpa)


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