Hagia Sophia Museum to Become a Mosque Again Says Turkish Government
The government of Turkey has announced that the world-famous Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul will be turned back into a mosque. This former cathedral and mosque is widely considered to be one of the world’s most remarkable examples of architecture. The announcement was made by the Turkish President, after a court ruling. Making the Hagia Sophia museum a mosque again has been largely welcomed in Turkey but has angered many international Christian leaders, and the neighboring Greek government.
Hagia Sophia Returns to Religion
Hagia Sophia was originally a Christian cathedral in what was then Constantinople. It was built in the 6 th century AD by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great and the main building was designed by Greek geometers Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles. As a cathedral, Hagia Sophia was the center of the Greek Orthodox Church for centuries.
For over a thousand years until its fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the city of Constantinople was one of the greatest urban centers in the Christian world. At the heart of this city was the Hagia Sophia (meaning ‘Holy Wisdom’ in Greek), one of the most iconic buildings of Constantinople, and is the third to be built on the site.
Mosaic at the southwestern entrance mosaic of the former basilica Hagia Sophia of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey) with the Virgin Mary in the middle holding the Child Christ on her lap. (Public domain)
After the capture of Constantinople in 1453, by the Ottomans, the cathedral was turned into a mosque. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror restored the building and during this process many Christian mosaics were plastered over. Later Islamic minarets were added to the structure.
Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until 1934, when it was turned into a museum, by the secular regime of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey. The museum was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985. The museum, which stands opposite Istanbul’s world-renowned Blue Mosque, receives millions of visitors every year.
Making Hagia Sophia a Mosque Again Creates Controversies
There have been several cases brought before the Turkish Constitutional Court to change the status of the museum. The secularization of the mosque has long angered many pious Turkish Muslims. The highest court in Turkey rescinded the 1934 decision to turn the building into a museum.
Archaeology News Network reported on the reason for this court decision saying that ‘Hagia Sophia was registered as a mosque in its property deeds.’ Current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has welcomed the decision. Erdogan and his government have long sought a greater role for Islam in the public life of the Republic of Turkey.
Interior of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, with signs with the names of Muhammad, Allah and Abu Bakr (from left to right). (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The “new” Hagia Sophia mosque is being transferred to the management of the Religious Affairs Ministry of Turkey. Anthony Skinner, a risk assessment manager with Verisk Maplecroft, is quoted by Archaeology News Network as saying, ‘The decision is intended to score points with Erdogan’s pious and nationalist constituents.’ And many devout Muslims are overjoyed with the court’s ruling. The Archaeology News Network quoted Erdal Gencler an Istanbul resident as saying that ‘It's been a dream since we were kids.’
However, not all Turkish people are happy with the decision. Many have a more secular outlook and worry about Erdogan’s policies which they believe are undermining the secular constitution established by Ataturk, widely regarded as the father of the modern Republic of Turkey. Orhan Pamuk, the country’s most famous novelist told the BBC that ‘There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this but their voices are not heard.’ Some believe that the Hagia Sophia mosque conversion is being promoted to distract attention from the economic crisis in the country caused by COVID 19.
Drawing by the Fossati brothers depicting the mosaic of six patriarchs in the southern tympanum of Hagia Sophia (Gaspare and Giuseppe Fossati / Public domain)
Turning Hagia Sophia into a Mosque Creates Outrage
Internationally the recent court ruling and the government’s decision to make Hagia Sophia a mosque again have been widely condemned. The Russian Orthodox Church has criticized the decision and believes that it will exacerbate existing divisions. And the Pope is ‘said to be ‘very distressed’ over the decision, reports RTE. The government of Greece, where most of the population are Orthodox Christians, has stated that the move is an ‘open provocation to the civilized world.’ Greece and Turkey have a long history of conflict and differing viewpoints.
However, Erdogan is unapologetic. He has been increasingly assertive in international affairs and has frequently clashed with his neighbors and international powers including the USA. The BBC reports the Turkish President as saying ‘anyone who doesn't like it - and plenty abroad don't - is attacking Turkey's sovereignty’.
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Christian Symbols to be Respected After Mosque Re-opening
Until recently, Muslim clerics have only held prayers in Hagia Sophia on Islamic religious holidays. From the 24 th of July 2020, the building will be a mosque every day. According to the BBC President Erdogan recently stated that ‘Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims.’ There are numerous Christian emblems and artworks at Hagia Sophia, including mosaics of the Virgin Mary on its spectacular golden dome. Turkish officials have stated that these emblems and artworks will not be removed.
Top image: Istanbul’s world-famous Hagia Sophia museum to become a fulltime mosque in July 2020 Source: romas_ph/Adobe Stock
By Ed Whelan