On Friday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that a 1500-year-old Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Istanbul named Hagia Sophia would be converted into a mosque. The decision was made at the backdrop of a court order nullifying the earlier status of the cathedral as a ‘museum’.
“It was concluded that the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally. The cabinet decision in 1934 that ended its use as a mosque and defined it as a museum did not comply with laws,” the top administrative court order noted.
As per the report, Erdogan has stated in a press conference that the conversion of the UNESCO World Heritage site was well-within Turkey’s ‘sovereign right.’ He informed that the first Islamic prayer would be read inside the premises of Haga Sophia on July 24. Besides, he reiterated that the historic monument would be open to locals, and foreigners including non-Muslims. Crying foul after the international backlash, Erdogan claimed that those who do not agree to his decision were attacking Turkey’s sovereignty.
Reportedly, a call to prayer was recited at Hagia Sophia and was televised on news channels. Meanwhile, the social media channels of the cultural site were taken down. The Turkish authorities have clarified that the mosaics of the Virgin Mary on the golden dome of the cathedral would not be removed. The historic side reportedly attracts 37 lac visitors every year.
Erdogan, hailing from a conservative Muslim background, had presided over the gradual dismantling of Turkey’s secular traditions in recent times. Many believe that Erdogan’s latest gambit to convert the historical site of Hagia Sophia into a Muslim worshipping site is in line with his broader goal of progressive Islamisation of the Turkish society and designed specifically to gain political mileage by catering to his followers’ fundamentalist views which entails that once a mosque is sanctified, it should never be unconsecrated.
The History of Hagia Sophia
Originally built as a cathedral in 537 AD by Byzantine emperor Justinian I, it was believed to be the largest church in the world. The Byzantines held it for centuries before it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman rule in 1453.
The city of Istambul, earlier known as Constantinopole, was captured by Sultan Mehmed II. He had then performed Friday prayers within the cathedral. Four minarets were added to the original structure and Christian mosaic was covered with Islamic calligraphy. It was assigned the status of a museum by the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, in 1453. But, all is set to change now. However, the Hagia Sophia has long been the symbol of Muslim-Christian rivalry.
For about 900 years, Hagia Sophia was considered as an unrivalled pilgrimage centre for the Eastern Christians. The artefacts housed at the pilgrimage destination included alleged pieces of the original cross of Jesus Christ, along with the lance that impaled the Nazarene’s side. For centuries, Christian pilgrims found healing from these and other items.
UNESCO criticises move
Following the decision to convert the 1500-year-old church to a mosque, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) expressed deep regret and urged Turkey to initiate dialogue without delay, to preserve world heritage and not to alter the status of the site without discussion. Reportedly, the decision was also criticised by the Eastern Orthodox Church, Greece and Church in Russia.
Hagia Sophia: UNESCO deeply regrets the decision of the Turkish authorities, made without prior discussion, and calls for the universal value of #WorldHeritage to be preserved.— UNESCO (@UNESCO) July 10, 2020
Full statement: https://t.co/WiZpjyagqF pic.twitter.com/klcMR9pmxC
While Kemal Ataturk with the museum status to Hagia Sophia tried to ascertain a secular legacy, Erodgan’s Islamism has reportedly threatened the founder’s vision. As per reports, an unapologetic Erdogan has stirred up the controversy through his decision to appease the Muslim hardliners in the country and deviate public discourse from the mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic in the country.