Ankara: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday formally reconverted Istanbul’s sixth-century iconic Hagia Sophia into a mosque and declared it open to Muslim worship, hours after a high court annulled a 1934 decision that had turned it into a museum.
The decision to reconvert Hagia Sophia — a former cathedral that was turned into a mosque after Istanbul’s conquest by the Ottoman Empire and had served as a museum for 86 years — sparked deep dismay among Orthodox Christians. But there was jubilation outside Hagia Sophia. Dozens of people who awaited the court’s ruling outside chanted “Allah is great!” when the news came out. Turkey’s high administrative court threw its weight behind a petition brought by a religious group and annulled the 1934 Cabinet decision that turned the site into a museum. Within hours, Erdogan signed a decree handing over Hagia Sophia to Turkey’s Religious Affairs Presidency. Erdogan has demanded that the the hugely symbolic world heritage site should be turned back into a mosque.
The group that brought the case to court had contested the legality of the 1934 decision by the modern Turkish republic’s secular government ministers and argued that the building was the personal property of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Istanbul in 1453.
Some Islamic prayers have been held in the museum in recent years and in a major symbolic move, Erdogan recited the opening verse of the Quran in the Hagia Sophia in 2018. Built under Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia was the main seat of the Eastern Orthodox church for centuries, where emperors were crowned amid ornate marble and mosaic decorations. Four minarets were added to the terracotta-hued structure with cascading domes and the building was turned into an imperial mosque following the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople — the city that is now Istanbul. The building opened its doors as a museum in 1935, a year after the Council of Ministers’ decision. Hagia Sophia was the most popular museum in Turkey last year, drawing more than 3.7 million visitors. News reports have said the conversion could occur in time for prayers on July 15, when Turkey marks the quashing of a coup attempt in 2016.