One of the most famous landmarks in the medieval world will be used as a mosque again, after a top Turkish court ruled that the decree making Hagia Sophia into a museum in 1934 was illegal.
The ruling and the plans by the Turkish government has drawn support and criticism from around the country and the wider world. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the President of Turkey and one of the key backers of the move, has already stated that worship will begin by July 24th. Commentators have expressed concern about preserving the historical nature of Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 530s, and served as the main cathedral for Greek Orthodox Christians during most of the Middle Ages. When the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, the cathedral was turned into a mosque. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War, the new nation of Turkey went through a process of secularization and the mosque was closed in 1931. Four years later it was reopened as a museum after an order by the Turkish President Atatürk.
The move to make Hagia Sophia into a museum has long been opposed by many in Turkish society – issues regarding religion and secularization have been much debated and fought over throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Fifteen years ago an Istanbul-based nongovernmental organization known as the Permanent Foundations Service to Historical Artifacts and Environment Association began court challenges to have Hagia Sophia revert back to a mosque. The long process ended on Friday when the 10th Chamber of the Council of State, Turkey’s highest administrative court, ruled that the original decree was invalid. “The Cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” the court ruled.
President Erdogan has already signed a declaration moving the management of Hagia Sophia to the country’s Direcorate of Religious Affairs. “We are abolishing the entrance fee to the Hagia Sophia Mosque with the annulment of its museum status.” the president said in statement. “Like all our mosques, the doors of Hagia Sophia will be wide open to locals and foreigners, Muslims and non-Muslims. Thanks to its new status, Hagia Sophia, the common heritage of humanity, will continue to embrace everyone more sincerely and uniquely. By completing the preparations swiftly, we plan to open Hagia Sophia to worship as of July 24, 2020, with the Friday prayer.”
The ruling was cheered on by groups of people who came to Hagia Sophia following the decision.
There has been strong disagreement of the decision from other parts of the world. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis condemned the move, saying:
This decision – that came 85 years since its designation as a museum – is an offense to its universal nature. This is a decision that offends all those who acknowledge the monument as part of world civilisation. Of course, this affects Turkey’s relations not only with Greece but also with the European Union, UNESCO and the global community as a whole. It is regrettable that Turkey’s leadership, who worked to establish the Alliance of Civilisations in 2005, today opted to move in the exact opposite direction.
UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, also issued a statement saying it “deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities.” Hagia Sophia was added, along with other historic parts of Istanbul, to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1985. “Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece and a unique testimony to interactions between Europe and Asia over the centuries. Its status as a museum reflects the universal nature of its heritage, and makes it a powerful symbol for dialogue,” said its Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
The World Monuments Fund, which helped fund restoration efforts at Hagia Sophia, issued this statement:
The Hagia Sophia has had many lives. First built as an Orthodox cathedral, it later served as a mosque and a Catholic church, before becoming a secular museum. We recognize this magnificent building and World Heritage Site is a monument of well-known historic, architectural, religious, and symbolic importance to communities both inside and outside of Turkey. Our primary concern is that relevant authorities ensure proper conservation and public access to the site, regardless of whether it continues to exist as a museum, or is returned to its function as a place of worship.
It is uncertain what the next steps are for Hagia Sophia, including how much use it will receive as a mosque. Some commentators believe that religious events will only take place on special occasions. Hagia Sophia is one of the most important tourist sites in Turkey, being the country’s most visited attraction in 2019.
Top Photo: By Nserrano / Wikimedia Commons