Originally one of the largest churches in the world, the Hagia Sophia was a mosque for several centuries before being converted into a museum. Now, following a verdict by a Turkish court, President Recep Erdogen has signed off on a decree to to convert the iconic museum—a UNESCO World Heritage site—back into a mosque.
The Turkish Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, on Friday annulled the 1934 government decree that had turned the site into a museum, after a petition from a religious outfit argued that the Hagia Sophia had been the private property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II after he captured Istanbul in 1453 AD. For nearly 500 years since then, the Hagia Sophia was a mosque, being converted to a church in 1935 by a secular government in 1935.
The debate over turning the Hagia Sophia into a mosque has stoked nationalist sentiments in Turkey, with President Erdogan strongly rallying behind the move to convert it.
Erdogan’s decree formally declares it open to Muslims for worship, handing it over to the country’s Religious Affairs Presidency. “May it be beneficial,” Erdogan tweeted, along with a picture of the decree.
The move sparked condemnation and criticism from outside Turkey. Cyprus’s Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides said Cyprus condemned the decision; earlier, a resolution had been tabled in the Cyprus parliament to condemn the Turkish government's plans. Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, said that the “nationalism displayed by Erdogan...takes his country back six centuries”.
Russia’s deputy head of the foreign affairs committee called the act a mistake, saying, “Turning it into a mosque will not do anything for the Muslim world. It does not bring nations together, but on the contrary brings them into collision."
For centuries, the mosque had been the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church and was the site where emperors would be crowned. The church responded saying that the “concern of millions of Christians has not been heard,” as quoted by Russian news agency Interfax. Patriach Bartholomew of Constantinople had earlier called for it to remain as it is as a place of Christian-Muslim encounter that “belongs not only to those who own it at the moment, but to all humanity”.
Built in 537 AD during the reign of emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia has twice been burned down in riots. It is among Turkey’s most popular tourist attractions.