Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia has reversed its title from a museum to a Mosque again after an eighty-six-year hiatus. The nearly 1600-year-old monumental structure opened its gates to allow prayers on July 24th after its inauguration by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan commenced the first prayer with the recitation of the Quran, in the presence of his cabinet ministers and other top officials. Hundreds of devotees gathered outside the historic place of worship revered by Muslims and Christians alike.
The controversial reversal of the UNESCO world heritage was approved by the top courts of the country, thereby annulling a decree proclaimed in 1934 for the site to be a museum. Erdogan signed the annulment within minutes following the verdict and declared the revokement of Hagia Sophia. The first prayer comes two weeks after the annulment.
The conversion of Hagia Sophia, which is widely known as a symbol of secularism and the co-existence of multiple religions, caused a religious and political furor worldwide.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) now renamed as The Grand Hagia Sophia Mosque, was built as a cathedral in the sixth century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The site was demolished twice owing to war and natural calamities, before being built in 537 AD as the monument we know today serving as an Orthodox Christian Church for over 900 years.
Later in 1453 AD, it was conquested by Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire who converted into Hagia Sophia Mosque. He added features to the interiors and exteriors of the monument, ordered the construction of Minbar (a pulpit for giving prayers), a Mihrab (to show the direction of Mecca), a Madrasa (religious school), a library. The Byzantine mosaics of orthodox symbols were plastered by panels of calligraphic medallions embossed with the name of God and caliphs of Islam.
Following the end of the Ottoman regime, the founding leader of the new republic of turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – renovated the structure as a museum in 1934 under a cabinet decree on the grounds of secularism. It was officially declared on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985 for the exemplification of its profound co-existence of Christianity and Islam.
Religious and conservative groups have languished for Hagia Sophia to be reverted back to a mosque for decades. The conversion now is a landmark achievement for its supporters as well as for President Erdogan. “This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its captivity chains. It was the greatest dream of our youth. It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished”, Erdogan said.
The restoration of the Muslim temple faced ire from world leaders, including UNESCO who regretted the decision made by the Turkish government without prior discussion. “Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. It is important to avoid any implementing measure, without prior discussion with UNESCO,” said its Director-General. Erdogan denied the talks for discussion insisting it is Turkey’s “historical and sovereign right”.
It was also largely condemned by Christian leaders who see it as a deletion of one of Christianity’s greatest monuments.