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Controversy Erupts as Turkey Converts World Heritage Site Hagia Sophia into a Mosque

The Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia

The world famous Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is to become a mosque once again. A site of great religious significance to both Christians and Muslims, it’s stood there in some form or another since the 6th century. In 1934 it became a museum and is a top draw for tourists. Now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has announced the controversial decision to change its status.

As reported by BBC News, Turkey’s Council of State concluded it was “not possible legally” for Hagia Sophia to continue in its current form. They cite the “settlement deed” which apparently cements its use as a mosque. Those who “defined it as a museum did not comply with laws”. The government claim they are exercising a sovereign right.

Istanbul, Turkey
Aerial view of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

Museum status for the Byzantine structure was decreed by Kemal Atatürk, first President of the Republic of Turkey. Built as a basilica for Greek Orthodox Christians by Emperor Constantius in 360 AD, it went through upheavals and even destruction across the centuries. The Hagia Sophia seen today is the third version, overseen by Justinian I (537 AD). When Mehmed the Conqueror took Constantinople for the Ottomans in 1453, the Hagia Sophia went from cathedral to mosque.

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey

The ruling – made on Friday – has provoked an outcry, with many seeing it as an attempt to solidify centralized authority. 2 years ago, the President silently recited the opening verses of the Quran within its walls. Writing for the BBC, Orla Guerin believes he “is now taking one more step to dismantle Ataturk’s secular legacy, and remold Turkey according to his vision.” She adds this “plays well with his base – religious conservatives – and with Turkish nationalists.”

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) indoors captured with fish-eye lens.

As well as being an enduring reminder of Turkey’s history, the site creates a balance for Istanbul’s citizens. Lying on the Bosporus Strait, the city sits between Europe and Asia. Approx 15 million people share the border between 2 continents. notes, “Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Parthenon in Athens, the Hagia Sophia is a long-enduring symbol of the cosmopolitan city.”

Hagia Sophia frescoes
Apse mosaic of the Virgin and Child in the Hagia Sophia

The site refers to Justinian’s intention that the cathedral be diverse in its construction, reflecting the vast Byzantine Empire. “The marble used for the floor and ceiling was produced in Anatolia (present-day eastern Turkey) and Syria, while other bricks (used in the walls and parts of the floor) came from as far away as North Africa. The interior of Hagia Sophia is lined with enormous marble slabs that are said to have been designed to imitate moving water.” The columns partly came from Ephesus and the Temple of Artemis.

Byzantine frescoes
The Empress Zoe mosaic in the Hagia Sophia. Photo by Myrabella

Hagia Sophia is a World Heritage Site, and Unesco are among organizations who oppose the ruling. The Irish Times writes it has also “provoked deep dismay among Orthodox Christians and the Geneva-based World Council of Churches, whose members include Protestant and Orthodox Churches, has spoken of its ‘grief and dismay’.”

Criticism comes from the very highest levels. During a public address the Pope made a “very brief, improvised remark”, stating: “I think of Hagia Sophia, and I am deeply pained.”

Those fearing the status change will sow division have nothing to fear, at least according to Erdogan. Quoted by the BBC, he says “the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims”. Orla Guerin writes, “Turkish officials say Christian emblems, including mosaics of the Virgin Mary which adorn its soaring golden dome, will not be removed.”

Related Article: There are runic inscriptions in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul left there by Vikings

Hagia Sophia will be open as a mosque for prayer from July 24th. The iconic building has witnessed some dramatic events over the past 1,500 years. It will no doubt play host to more for years to come.

Steve Palace is a writer and comedian from the UK. He’s a contributor to both The Vintage News and The Hollywood News and has created content for many other websites. His short fiction has been published by Obverse Books.